Failure to consult means ocean sanctuary is likely to miss November deadline.

Governments fall apart for many reasons. They can grow tired, they run out of ideas or they can become complacent and fail to heed political alarm bells. This last category encapsulates the Government's troubles over the Kermadec ocean sanctuary, which has suddenly become a litmus issue and raised the prospect of the Maori Party walking away from its confidence and supply agreement with the National-led Government.

Very few New Zealanders have ever seen the Kermadecs, a subtropical arc of islands 1000km north of New Zealand. They lie on the same active fault that so frequently shakes the North Island. Even fewer have glimpsed the marine treasures in the surrounding seas which the sanctuary would protect. A permit is needed to set foot on the group, which is as close to Tonga as it is to New Zealand.

A year ago the Prime Minister used a trip to New York to announce that 620,000sq km of sea around the islands would be closed forever to fishing and ocean-floor mining.

The United Nations General Assembly learned about the sanctuary plan before New Zealand was told, and even before John Key informed his own caucus.


This failure to consult is one element in the row engulfing the conservation project, and is of the Government's own making. It has emerged that Hollywood film-maker and Titanic director James Cameron, US Secretary of State John Kerry and an American environmental lobby all encouraged the sanctuary plan, which has fostered a view that ministers bowed to foreign pressure to create the vast protected area. Whatever the case, the political management of what was meant to be a conservation showstopper has been mediocre.

The dispute with the Maori Party is more fundamental. Under legislation creating the sanctuary, fishing rights and compensation were ruled out. The Cabinet concluded that while Te Ohu Kaimoana, the Maori fisheries commission, held fishing rights under the 1992 fisheries settlement, it was not entitled to compensation because tribes did not take fish from the Kermadecs.

Maori take the view that the 1992 agreement, known as the Sealord deal, confirmed a property right. This was how the settlement was framed at the time, and why it had the support of all tribes as it was seen as full and final. Te Ohu filed claims in court as long ago as March arguing the sanctuary extinguished the property right and emerged without consultation.

The Maori Party has moved in behind Te Ohu, forcing the Government to put the legislation on hold while it searches for a political solution. Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell, while stopping short of saying the dispute was a coalition breaker, declared that the sanctuary's impact on Treaty rights was "very serious".

The last-minute stumbles suggest that the hoped-for November declaration of the sanctuary will pass without the status of the ocean changing. There are suggestions that a compromise could be hammered out, with the legislation preserving fishing rights and affected iwi voluntarily agreeing not to fish within the sanctuary area for a set time.

Iwi argue that other Pacific sanctuaries allow for sustainable fishing, but Environment Minister Nick Smith says the Government is reluctant to make an exception and undermine the very idea of a protected area.

The Government would not be in this pickle if it had engaged with Te Ohu, its support partner the Maori Party, and even commercial fishing interests from the outset. Hubris is a quality which politicians embrace at their peril.