The Significant Natural Area debacle has taught us at least two things. One, Green politician James Shaw still has a perfect record of not accepting any kind of fault, and two, under this current government, Māori have the sort of political clout that others can only fantasise about. And whatever their ethnicity, all New Zealanders, particularly those who own a pohutukawa tree, should be celebrating the fact that they are wielding that power in opposition to a stunning example of government arrogance and ignorance.
Shaw displayed his ability to deny all responsibility for a fiasco with a straight face when, as Minister of Statistics, he presided over the 2018 census. Apparently agreeing with his ministry that the best way to count us was online, despite warnings that it wouldn't work, he sat and watched as the process collapsed, even the tried and true method of delivering and collecting paper forms proving to be utterly beyond the ability of his officials to organise and execute. The result was a census that wasn't worth a tin of beans, but did that bother the man in charge? Not at all.
His response to criticism from the Northland Age was to suggest that the editor not believe everything he read on Twitter. He not only refused to accept any sort of responsibility, but, publicly at least, refused even to acknowledge that the census was a shambles.
Now he's adopted a similar position regarding SNAs, another cock-up of gargantuan proportions, although he has accepted that the execution of this ill-conceived idea has been wanting. However, once again, he's shifting the blame. Despite defending the process just days earlier, he's now accusing some local authorities for "jumping the gun."
That after publicly pondering on why people were getting agitated given that all the owners of SNAs who wished to develop or modify their land would have to do was apply for a consent. What's wrong or unreasonable about that? As it turns out, plenty.
Land owners, certainly in Northland (where the councils, according to Shaw, have failed to follow Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta's instructions), are rightly up in arms. They do not relish allowing any form of government, local or central, telling them what they can and cannot do with their land beyond what they already do. They take umbrage at the clear suggestion that they are not fit to have control over land that might be home to native flora and fauna. They see the process as a "land grab" by the government, local or central, and show no sign of lying down and taking it.
Shaw has responded by saying he would ask Northland's councils to "taihoa" until a national policy statement is approved. The problem some might see with that is that when governments, by no means least the current one, are allowed to progress loopy proposals, those ideas tend to become law. It is far better to protest at the outset than waiting for sanity to be restored, unaided by public rebellion.
There are some who believe Shaw is right, that Northland's councils, or at least the Far North District Council, have leapt on an opportunity to show their contempt for land owners in general. One man who knows more than most about local government in Northland told the writer that FNDC staff tend to regard land owners and their property rights as a nuisance, and see the SNA process as a chance for them, the staff, to do what they have long wanted to do but has been beyond their reach.
Whether the council is responsible for this appalling abuse of power or is simply the messenger, it is the government that has to put a stop to it. Whoever believed for a moment that a process that involved the aerial mapping of a region, then declaring that 42 per cent of that region, right down to individual trees, in one reported case, a paddock covered in gorse, in another a large area of noxious weeds (but not the adjacent wetland) demanded protection from any sort of development, has to qualify for membership of the demographic identified by Shane Jones as having rocks in their heads.
Meanwhile, what we are seeing now is not unprecedented, but is a welcome display of emotion and anger, right across the board. But land owners who are not of Māori descent should not be sucked into thinking Shaw, Mahuta and Co are listening to them, or wary of rarking them up to the point where there might be some political fallout. Neither the Green Party nor the government are counting on the support of Pākehā farmers, and many of those who are protesting against SNAs are both Pākehā and farmers. Both have made that very clear since 2017, and even more so since last year's election.
Pākehā farmers, including in Northland, undoubtedly contributed to Labour's landslide win last year, but Shaw is no doubt aware that many apparently voted Labour knowing that National was a lost cause, and hoping that Labour would be able to govern without calling on the Greens for support.
In any event, last week Shaw made it abundantly clear that his only concern was to avoid alienating Māori.
Mahuta, he said, had made it clear that councils were supposed to work with iwi. Fair enough, but what about everyone else? What about the Mid North farmer who told the writer last week that three tōtara trees in a paddock outside his house, under which his cows camped at every opportunity, had been declared a SNA? What about the Pākehā farmer who reckoned he was about to lose control of almost 80 per cent of his land? Don't they matter? Not to James Shaw they don't.
He added further insult to many land owners when he said that, "Given the history of colonisation, it is no wonder iwi are suspicious of policies affecting land."
It's not clear whether Shaw was born with an innate talent for giving offence or whether it's something he's had to work on, but either way he's very good at it. He obviously has no concept whatsoever of the love many people of all ethnicities in this country have for their land. He has no idea of the lengths to which many land owners have gone in the past to preserve native bush and the plants, birds and animals that bush supports. And what's more, he doesn't care. He has a plan for this country, and he intends to achieve it.
Make no mistake, this is a watershed moment in terms of property rights in this country, and if the process had not offended Māori to the extent that it has, the battle would have been over before it started.
The danger now, perhaps, is that Shaw will find a means of placating Māori with an arrangement that applies to them and not others. He might not be used to compromising, but you can be sure he understands the concept of dividing and conquering. He must not be allowed to do that.
Frankly it is wonderful to see Māori and Pākehā on the same side for once. Too often Māori and Pākehā interests don't seem to align, but this time they have. And it is encouraging that for once a broad spectrum of New Zealanders have decided that enough is enough, and are united in a common cause. Farmers, in particular, must be gratified by the knowledge that for once they are not fighting Wellington alone.