Julian Batchelor’s national roadshow on the place of Māori in New Zealand has its roots in Northland’s Rawhiti where he has been in conflict since moving there in 2008. David Fisher investigated his long-simmering local feud before his divisive, national tour.
From one end of the country to the other, evangelist Julian Batchelor has told people New Zealand is at “war” with Māori.
At one of his first meetings, Batchelor told the Herald: “It’s been my relationship with Māori at Rawhiti that has triggered my involvement in this movement.” It’s a statement that firmly grounds his nationwide “Stop Co-Governance” roadshow in land bought in the quiet Northland coastal village 15 years ago.
Now, hundreds of documents released through the Official Information Act show Batchelor consistently lobbied government agencies over others walking across his property. The Department of Conservation repeatedly rejected compensation for walkers using his land to access the Cape Brett track while other documents show local hapū used Batchelor’s land to access two urupā on what appears to be the mistaken historical belief it had legal access.
The tipping point, according to a recent interview Batchelor did with a far-right Australian podcast, was the designation of his Rawhiti land as “wahi tapu” - or sacred - last year. This saw Batchelor “mobilise”, as he calls it, holding dozens of meetings across the country pushing what protestors have called false, misleading and racist claims.
The meetings have been held under the “Stop Co-Governance” banner and are planned through to September 10.
OIA papers spanning 15 years show Batchelor arrived in Rawhiti in 2008 having bought land DoC wanted but couldn’t get the funding to buy itself. Documents show he has at times lived at the property, which was moved there from Whangārei four decades ago, and at other times rented it out as holiday accommodation.
Batchelor almost immediately sought compensation from DoC for walkers setting off on the Cape Brett walk along what he claimed was his property, according to Beehive briefing papers that show the route was considered a “historical pathway” used by Maori “for hundreds of years”. In response to Batchelor seeking compensation for use of the path, one paper considered a “token amount” could be paid.
If Batchelor pushed his case, the Beehive papers stated, then the start of the Cape Brett track could be moved 10 minutes south to a new route that would add two hours’ walking time, avoiding his property.
It didn’t move the track and to this day the sign next to Batchelor’s property directs walkers up a flight of stairs and across his land before continuing on to Cape Brett.
Again in 2015, Batchelor sought payment. In response, DoC raised Batchelor’s online advertising for his holiday house using “the merits of the Cape Brett peninsula” which was predominantly Māori land “to promote your accommodation business without acknowledging the hapū’s interests”. No cash was forthcoming.
‘Walking through my land is a privilege’
In May 2019, Batchelor paid for a survey to be carried out which showed - as he had believed - there was no public pathway connecting the Oke Bay Scenic Reserve entrance to the Cape Brett track.
While Batchelor had initially taken issue with hikers crossing his land, a decade of life in Rawhiti had also seen him butting up against the people of Ngāti Kuta and Patukeha, descendants of the chiefs who settled there centuries before.
Early in his arrival, he sold off one of the three parcels of land and there were protests over who actually owned it. Adding to the tension was Batchelor bristling over an ongoing persistent determination from Māori there was recognised legal access across the land to two urupā.
Batchelor dismissed any right of access for Māori in an email to DoC: “I think it is important for Māori to realise that being given land is a privilege and an honour, not a right. They must also realise that walking through my land to get to their urupā has been a privilege not a right and it can’t continue.”
The DoC papers show it carried out its own survey and found it supported Batchelor’s position. Until that point, belief persisted that the edge of the cliff was public land and people could walk along it to access the rest of the Cape Brett track in one direction and the urupā in the other. Batchelor held the view the public area had collapsed through erosion and that his property went to the cliff edge.
Both surveys appeared to support what Batchelor had said for years - anyone wanting to walk the Cape Brett track had to pass over his property.
Ngāti Kuta also suffered a setback when DoC studied Māori Land Court documents and found no legal pathway to the urupā existed.
It was a blow because for decades they had believed there was legal access. In fact, a deep dive prompted by DoC found Māori Land Court records showing there was an intent to have such a pathway in the 1930s.
But the DoC inquiries found that while steps were taken to “physically put [a walkway] into effect” the necessary paperwork was not completed and “it is unfortunate this walkway appears not to have been legally created”.
Friction over urupā access
Local woman Jacci Rewha-Clendon showed the Herald the pathway to the urupā, found at the top of the stairway used to access the Cape Brett track.
At the top of the stairway, there are two paths. One going left is a short walk to the top of a hill at which an urupā can be found. The other, going right, is the Cape Brett track but also the path used to access burial caves and another urupā long before Europeans arrived.
“He cuts our people off here,” she claims, pointing to a point just below where the stairway reaches the ridge overlooking beautiful Oke Bay. It is where the disputed land surveys show that beyond that point is Batchelor’s property.
For those in Rawhiti - a community that’s 83 per cent Māori by the 2018 census - Batchelor’s rigid approach to asserting property rights brush up against hundreds of years of traditional practice.
Rewha-Clendon claims Batchelor makes accusations of trespass, casts suspicion on children and young people and claims elders in the community encourage bad behaviour towards him.
“It’s never been proven any of the locals broke into his property,” she says. Batchelor has told meetings the house was subject to an “invasion” during which $10,000 damage was done.
In the OIA papers, Batchelor talked of work being done to improve the property. Rewha-Clendon talks of those works as a slight against the community with a 3m-high retaining wall built without council consent, for which he was fined $3000.
Separately, a culturally significant pōhutukawa on his property was felled. Bush alongside the track - also on his land - was also cleared.
One email released through the OIA showed a Ngāti Kuta representative objecting to the removal of kānuka and pōhutukawa for fruit trees. It “smacks of colonial exploitation and denial where nature is subservient to human self‐gratification”, DoC was told.
Against this backdrop, Rewha-Clendon finds it personally upsetting grieving people observing tangihanga walk the path to the urupā under the eye of Batchelor’s CCTV cameras and sometimes his guests.
There have been times when those staying at Batchelor’s accommodation watched and took photographs as if observing a cultural show, she says.
It’s not just tangi but visiting the graves of those who have previously passed.
“We come up here all the time,” she says. It’s a practice she says has been going on for centuries and “it’s wrong that our people stop using this place” because of conflict with Batchelor.
Conflict at Rawhiti
It was this setting that led to a courtroom and a claim of assault against Rewha-Clendon. She says she was walking up the stairway to the urupā when confronted by Batchelor.
“He came over and he grabbed me,” she recalls telling the Kaikohe District Court. “That’s what I said to the judge. When he grabbed my arm, I saw that as a threat. I asked him to let me go. I pushed him. I booted him away from me.”
The telling of this story is somewhat of a local legend. The commonly told version ends with Batchelor on the ground, gasping for air.
That didn’t happen, says Rewha-Clendon. “Because I booted him hard, I bounced back and I went down. It’s funny now but it was upsetting at the time.”
Batchelor has complained about the prosecution being thrown out. “The judge just let her off,” he said during a recent interview with an Australian far-right podcast. “It was obviously the wrong decision. It was a politically motivated decision.”
It’s been 15 years, now, of having Batchelor as a neighbour. “Everything changed when this man bought it,” Rewha-Clendon said.
Ngāti Kuta sought to assert its connection to the land with an application to Heritage NZ in July 2020 to designate parts of the area as “wahi tapu” - sacred - based on the importance of the Te Araka burial caves.
“This walkway was known as the Ara. The current urupā, Te Araka, was established along this walkway as the spiritual pathway to be at peace with their tūpuna chiefs. It is this heritage and spiritual connection hapū want connected.”
The application form tells those applying that wahi tapu status would “assist you in your role as kaitiaki by identifying your association with the place and what it means to you, whether you own it or not”.
It could lead to “better protection of places” through local authorities working out appropriate uses for land and to “prevent future inappropriate activities or development”.
Creating a wahi tapu space
In the year that followed, Heritage NZ met and spoke with kaumatua Robert Willoughby and others of Ngāti Kuta. Researchers were shown the area and carried out interviews, learning of “potential risk … in the tension between ]Batchelor] … and the local community, centred on house renovations, issues arising from the original alienation of the land in 1935, and plans to build a church and retreat on the block”.
The summary also said that - to that point - “there has been no formal communication with the landowner” but it was hoped “the notification process will open up a dialogue” between Batchelor and Heritage NZ.
The attempt to contact Batchelor was the sending of a letter to the address listed with the Companies Office for Gracealone Oke Bay Holdings Ltd, the registered owner of the property.
In it, Heritage NZ told Batchelor he had a month to make a submission: “Te Araaka is part of a wider ancestral landscape and is considered to have heritage values and the extent of the wahi tapu area will follow the existing Cape Brett track through your property.”
The letter came with a map showing the area, an explanation wahi tapu status would not show on property documents and an explanation why it was a “good candidate”.
The address was out of date and Batchelor would later say it was never received.
He also said he didn’t see a public notice in the Northern Advocate that publicised the wahi tapu claim. The public notice didn’t specify Batchelor’s property by name or legal title. Rather, it described “Te Araaka, Oke Bay, Rawhiti”.
The deadline for feedback on the application came and went on August 13, 2021 without any input from Batchelor.
In the months between then and the final decision in March 2022, Heritage NZ never raised the wahi tapu application even though it made contact with Batchelor over other matters. That included suspicion Batchelor was carrying out earthworks in an archeologically significant area - which turned out to be work the agency had already approved.
Then, in March 2022, Heritage NZ sent another letter and took out a new public notice announcing wahi tapu status on the property. In late March, OIA documents show Batchelor lodged a “formal objection” to wahi tapu status saying he had just discovered what was happening.
Batchelor said Heritage NZ efforts to contact him were inadequate. He said the Companies Office listing with the inaccurate address also listed an email and phone number - or even Batchelor’s home address in Rawhiti - that could have been used to make contact.
“This smacks of ‘trying to sneak something through without the owner knowing’. Corruption.”
In June 2022, Batchelor took his objections to the Beehive without success. Associate culture minister Kiri Allan wrote to Batchelor assuring him wahi tapu status “does not involve reclassification or redesignation of land and does not confer any kind of heritage protection”.
Heritage NZ director Ellen Andersen told Batchelor the same in a letter that told him his views would be considered for any future applications made relating to that land - and that he could seek a review in three years.
‘I’m going to mobilise’
By the year’s end, Batchelor was fruitlessly again demanding compensation from DoC and railing afresh against Māori access of urupā.
But he wasn’t getting anywhere. Batchelor - who has strongly denied accusations his tour is racist - did not respond to requests for comment from the Herald but recently told a far-right Australian podcast he had “lived under tribal rule in this little community for 14 years”.
In describing the relationship, he offered his opinion: “It’s absolutely hell. They try to break you. They try to use intimidation, bullying, heavy psychological strategies like stonewalling, bullying, breaking things, stealing things, posting videos online - treating you like you’re a second-class citizen.
“They walk through my land to get to their cemetery. I pay the rates, they get the privilege. Nobody ever says thank you.”
The final straw was the wahi tapu designation by Heritage NZ, he said. “It’s basically someone taking control of your land.”
He believed there was collaboration between hapū members and Heritage NZ and decided “I’m going to mobilise”.
In February, Batchelor embarked on his roadshow, leaving Rawhiti behind. When he returns, he will find changes.
There may be a new entrance to the track that bypasses his property. DoC has confirmed - as have locals - that the Māori owners of the land over which most of the 16km walk passed were investigating a new entry to the track.
DoC has also said it will change the signage at the start of the Cape Brett track to make it clear walkers are passing through Batchelor’s property. It won’t do it immediately though, but when the signs need replacing.
It also appeared DoC was still hedging its bets over where Batchelor’s property ended even though its own survey showed the Cape Brett track passes over it. DoC said it is an “assumption” being made based on “original documentation and … latest survey” but “there are hapū members who dispute the information (both historic and therefore current)”.
Despite this - and to DoC’s surprise - the company managing the walk appears to have recently struck a deal with Batchelor. A spokesman for Cape Brett Walks Ltd told the Herald: “Any issue Julian Batchelor has about [walkers and] access across his land has been resolved.”
And there now appears a way to resolving Māori access to the urupā. While Heritage NZ told Batchelor wahi tapu status would not change his land rights, it sent a direction to the Far North District Council in February 2022 asking it investigate creating an easement to allow access.
That missive from Heritage NZ was lost in the mail. Herald inquiries led to it being found, meaning the issue of access might now be resolved by carving off a clifftop slice of Batchelor’s land.
It’s a decision that will be down to the Far North council which, for the first time, has a majority Māori membership. As one person involved said: “That’s a whole new can of worms.”
David Fisher is based in Northland and has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years, winning multiple journalism awards including being twice named Reporter of the Year and being selected as one of a small number of Wolfson Press Fellows to Wolfson College, Cambridge. He first joined the Herald in 2004.