The Crown's hopes of settlement for Ngapuhi have been dealt a further moral blow after a Waitangi Tribunal report recommended putting negotiations on hold until more hapu were on board.
The Waitangi Tribunal report into the mandate given to Tuhoronuku to negotiate on behalf of all Ngapuhi did not recommend the mandate process begin anew. It said the Crown had not acted in bad faith in dealing with hapu before deciding to recognise Tuhoronuku. However, the Crown had failed to ensure hapu were adequately represented and criticised it for pushing ahead with negotiations before ensuring there was wide hapu participation.
In a letter to Treaty minister Chris Finlayson, it recommended the Crown halt its negotiations "to give Ngapuhi breathing space to work through the issues identified." It said Ngapuhi hapu should be given a new chance to confirm whether they wished to be represented by Tuhoronuku.
The Waitangi Tribunal said while it was supportive of a united approach by Ngapuhi, that had to be a matter of choice for Ngapuhi hapu. The Crown should also include a condition that the mandate would continue only if a clear majority of hapu were involved.
Mr Finlayson is expected to respond to the report this afternoon. However, Waitangi Tribunal reports are not binding and he could push ahead with negotiations given about 70 per cent hapu involved have representatives on Tuhoronuku.
Mr Finlayson had hoped to finish Ngapuhi's claim during 2016 but progress was slowed by the stand-off over the mandate - something Mr Finlayson said was down to personality clashes.
There was a further hiccup to settlement when the former chair of Tuhoronuku, Sonny Tau, stepped down earlier this year after he was charged for allegedly taking kereru from Southland to Northland. Voting on a new chair is set to close today and Mr Tau is contesting that as is interim chair Sam Napia.
NZ First leader and Northland MP Winston Peters said Mr Finlayson could not afford to ignore the Tribunal's advice or it would result in disruptions similar to this week's occupation of Kaitaia Airport over the Te Hiku settlement. "If unresolved there is a danger that the Nga Puhi claim could be split into two, or more, and settlement delayed again.
Labour's Maori Affairs spokeswoman Nanaia Mahuta said it was clear a fresh approach was needed on the mandate. "There have been several hurdles for Ngapuhi hapu to legitimately advance their own interests because of the internal power struggle over mandate issues."
The report recommended changes to ensure Tuhoronuku gave hapu control and genuine participation, as well as the chance to withdraw if no longer happy. The urgent report was called for last year by about 15 hapu which refused to take part in Tuhoronuku and objected to the mandate.
The Waitangi Tribunal said the Crown had a duty to actively protect the rights of hapu to decide how and by whom the settlement would be negotiated. It said the current structure and processes of Tuhoronuku undermined the authority of hapu and that needed to change. Hapu were slow to sign up to Tuhoronuku and at the time negotiations began at a point when only about half of the hapu had representatives. Tuhoronuku has since held further elections and says that level is now at 70 per cent.
A spokeswoman for Treaty Minister Chris Finlayson said the Minister would consider the report.
"It is important to note that the Tribunal has not recommended the Crown withdraw its mandate. It has said undertaking a new mandating process would neither be practical nor productive."
He was pleased the Tribunal had also rejected claims that the Crown had pre-determined support for Tuhoronuku and that the Tribunal was encouraging hapu to proceed together on one settlement, rather than split.
However, at least one claimant hapu has read the report as a green light to pursue its own claim. Ngati Manu spokesman Arapeta Hamilton said they were unhappy with the process from the start. "The Tribunal's decision has vindicated our stance and will enable Ngāti Manu to move forward to achieving a settlement process without being encumbered by anyone else."
"Ngāti Manu were clear from the outset that we would not support Tuhoronuku settling our extensive land, water and resources claim in the Bay of Islands area with the Crown as they did not have our mandate nor did we have any faith or trust in the leadership or structure proposed because we were never consulted with on the approach" said Mr Hamilton.