By CHERIE TAYLOR in Rotorua
A deal that could see huge chunks of Central North Island forestry land back in Maori ownership has been dubbed a Labour election bribe.
Yesterday the Government and Nga Kaihautu o Te Arawa executive council, which represents 20,000 Maori, signed an agreement in principle for the settlement of more than 50 historic Treaty of Waitangi claims. It includes $36 million and the option to buy back forestry land currently under Crown ownership.
National claims the signing was an election bribe. Its Maori affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee confirmed his party wouldn't honour any agreement until the Nga Kaihautu Executive Council's mandate had been verified.
The council has had its mandate challenged by six Te Arawa hapu which have opted to negotiate their own claims.
In April, the Waitangi Tribunal warned the Government it could be disastrous to negotiate the claim with only slightly more than half of Te Arawa iwi, following waves of dissent within Te Arawa.
At the time the Government had stated hapu withdrawing from the executive council would take a back seat and wait for their claims to be heard.
Minister of Treaty Negotiations Mark Burton refuted National's claims.
"It's disappointing, if not surprising, that yet again the National Party prefers to criticise from a position of ignorance. It should be a matter of satisfaction for all members of Parliament to see such good progress being made in this important negotiation."
Nga Kaihautu yesterday distanced itself from the political jousting, chairman Eru George making no comment other than to say the deal would be taken back to iwi for their consideration.
The proposed package includes:
* financial and commercial redress totalling $36m, plus interest from the date of settlement;
* an opportunity to buy back Crown forestry land;
* a six-month opportunity to buy selected Crown-owned commercial properties and Crown-owned geothermal assets;
* accumulated Crown Forest Rentals associated with Crown land purchased;
* the return of more than 1000ha of land parcels stretching between Broadlands, Mamaku and the Maketu coastline, including parts of the Kaingaroa Forest, an island and three lake beds;
* ownership of 19 sites of cultural and spiritual significance;
* ownership of the Whakarewarewa Thermal Springs Reserve;
* the future ownership of Matawhaura and Otari Pa;
* acknowledgement and an apology from the Crown for historical grievances and breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi.
There is no private land involved and public access has been maintained, other than at three sites, totalling about 12ha, which include burial sites and ancient rock art - Pateko Island on Lake Rotoiti; Te Koutu Pa at Lake Okataina and a site at Punaromia by Lake Tarawera.
A total of 123ha of the Wai-o-Tapu Scenic Reserve will be returned to the tribe. Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland will not be affected. A change in name for Whakapounga Peak, to Rangitoto, has also been proposed.
Mr Brownlee said hapu members concerned about Nga Kaihautu's mandate had taken their case to every court in New Zealand, raising concerns about the validity of the agreement.
"You can't have one group imposing its views on everyone."
Rotorua Lakes Protection Society chairman Mike McVicker agreed the signing was an election ploy.
It appeared to have been rushed through for political, rather than Treaty, reasons, he said.
Rotorua mayor Kevin Winters was positive about the signing, saying Central North Island Maori could now move forward with a more secure future.
The public would not be affected with reserves remaining in public ownership and no impact on public use of those reserves.
"Open public access for all will remain,"he said.
Council and Nga Kaihautu had agreed to formalise the right of public access to Whakarewarewa Forest, protecting public recreational use there, he said.
By CHERIE TAYLOR in Rotorua