Whatungarongaro te tangata toitu te whenua. As man disappears from sight, the land remains.
The importance of land, or whenua, to Maori cannot be overstated. Our whenua has a cultural and spiritual significance and is recognised as taonga tuku iho: a treasure handed down from earlier generations. For iwi, hapu and whanau our connection to our land is a connection to our personal and tribal identity.
Strong legislation applying to Maori land is therefore essential to Maori - not just in providing rules for governing a key resource but for maintaining the connection of people to their land and identity.
After more than a century of struggling with the effects of bad legislation that disadvantaged Maori and led to the massive loss of land, a hard-won Crown-Maori consensus resulted in our current law: Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993.
It is for these reasons the proposed reform of Maori land laws - spearheaded by Minister for Maori Development Te Ururoa Flavell - has been viewed by many Maori landowners, leaders and organisations with such skepticism and concern.
Now the Waitangi Tribunal have released their highly critical report on the Minister's draft Te Ture Whenua Bill, he has little choice but to adopt a more robust approach to the reforms.
The tribunal has slammed the consultation process and identified a number of issues with the Minister's bill. What remains to be seen is whether the Minister will do the right thing and take the tribunal's recommendations on board.
Today Maori freehold land comprises more than 1.4 million ha - about 5.5 per cent of New Zealand's land mass. About 26 per cent of Maori freehold land is in Ikaroa-Rawhiti and so, in representing the many concerned landowners in my electorate, I have led Labour's response to the Te Ture Whenua Bill.
So why reform Maori land laws? The Crown asserts the current Act's constraints have led to the under-performance of up to 80 per cent of Maori land and believes new legislation will unlock hundreds of millions of dollars in returns for owners.
It's true there are challenges for Maori landowners who want to improve the development of their land. The more than 27,000 blocks of Maori land mean finding relevant information can pose problems.
These issues aside, there has been no sufficient case made for the complete repeal of the Act.
The current Act took more than 10 years to pass through the various stages of law-making. That shows the consideration required when attempting major changes to the relationship between Maori and their land.
I have been critical of the process around the reforms because the Minister has not applied this necessary level of care.
Since publishing the first draft bill in May 2015, the process has been characterised by a sense that the Minister is determined to rush through his bill come hell or high water.
Others expressed concern about the reforms to the extent that three Waitangi Tribunal claims were lodged against them in late 2014.
For many critics of the reforms, the tribunal report has confirmed their concerns.
The tribunal stated that Maori would be disadvantaged if the bill went ahead in its current form, and noted several major problems with the reforms, even declaring that the consultation hui in June 2015 breached legal standards.
Having attended many of the hui, including more than half of the 21 hui hastily organised this February, I can attest to the fact that many attendees were at a loss as to why so little time was given to absorb the details and implications of the 350-page bill.
Perhaps most concerning, the tribunal found there was no extensive evidence-based research on the existing Act. This means the entire reform process has been undertaken without the necessary homework done on what the real barriers are to utilising Maori land.
Te Ururoa Flavell proudly says 109 changes have been made to the bill since first publishing it, but why has it taken a Waitangi Tribunal hearing to prompt further analysis and amendments to this bill? This is an example of legislation being made on the fly, and that's a poor approach to take with our land laws.
There's simply no way he can, in good conscience, introduce the bill this month as planned.
The tribunal report does provide the Minister an opportunity to now go back and do things properly. This will cost political capital and irk his National Government friends, but that will pale in comparison to the wrath of Maori landowners if he continues to ignore their concerns.
Our whenua is too important to us to let him get this wrong.
- Meka Whaitiri is MP for Ikaroa-Rawhiti.
- Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org