More than 500 people took to the main street of Nelson yesterday in protest over the issue of Maori claims to the foreshore and seabed.

Carrying placards saying "Whites have rights too", "When do we stop giving?" and "One law for all New Zealanders", the march left Wakatu Square shortly after noon.

Protesters chanted "Foreshores for all" as they marched to the Church Steps, where they heard speeches from organisers United Future leader Peter Dunne and Nelson National MP Nick Smith.

"This is a great turnout. I'm rapt. Thank you very much. You are going to make a difference," an organiser, Dennis Wells, told the crowd.

The protest was organised by United Future members after the Court of Appeal ruled the Maori Land Court could hear claims for customary title over the foreshore and seabed. Another of the organisers, Gray Eatwell, brought a copy of the Bill of Rights Act.

He told protesters that it gave New Zealanders equal rights and provided that "no court shall override this act".

"It is high time the Government realised that," he said.

Port Nelson chief executive Jim Williamson was among those marching, but said he was there in a "personal capacity".

When the protesters reached the Church Steps, they were met by a man carrying a patu, or short weapon. He brandished it over Mr Wells' head from the steps before stepping back to listen to the speeches.

Mr Dunne said: "We in this country pride ourselves on our free and open access to the great outdoors."

On those occasions when the country united behind sports teams such as the All Blacks and Silver Ferns, "we are New Zealanders, we are not Maori New Zealanders, European New Zealanders, Asian New Zealanders, or Pacific New Zealanders. On those occasions we were all together for the common good".

Dr Smith earlier urged hobby groups to get behind a National Party petition against Maori seabed and foreshore claims, saying they could face restricted access and increased costs if the claims proceed.

The National Party launched the paper petition after receiving strong support on a website petition calling for the Government to claim exclusive Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed.

Dr Smith said the response to the website petition had been a "phenomenal" 40,000-plus signatures since it was launched last Tuesday.

"Ordinary New Zealanders, who have shown a huge degree of tolerance to treaty claims and spending on Maori issues, have had enough," he said.

"The foreshore and seabed claim by Maori has become a line in the sand that New Zealanders do not want to cross."

Senior Government ministers are negotiating with the Maori MPs to find what the Government describes as a "win-win" solution to the situation.

Dr Smith said the answer to the issue was "very simple", and the Government should pass legislation confirming the Crown as owner on behalf of all New Zealanders.

"Parliament is the highest court in the land, it determines the law. It is fundamental to a democratic society that Parliament decides the rules of the land and not the courts."

- NZPA

Herald feature: Maori issues

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