Hard News by Russell Brown

Bad moves

One of the more vexing elements for the government of its troubles in the past week or two is surely that they have helpfully served to obscure the behaviour of senior National MPs as complete doofuses.

Don Brash's flimsy grasp of Parliamentary craft was indicated when he gave everyone a right old laugh by first muffing a motion of no confidence and then asking perhaps the ultimate stupid question immediately afterwards:

So it was most unfortunate that Dr Brash's first formal question of the day, right after the vote, was: "Can the prime minister confirm that her Government still enjoys the support of a majority of members . . .?"

Ministers laughed so hard that some seemed about to cough up vital organs. They got another laugh when, minutes later, after a second question from Dr Brash, the entire Opposition lost the plot and forgot to keep asking supplementary questions in support of their leader, leaving the country's most preferred PM looking like a startled rabbit.

National also made a dog's breakfast out of its review of policy on nuclear ship visits, which, oddly proposed that the law be replaced by a "polcy ban" which we would then hope the US would respect of its own free will. Then Brash was forced to declare that he could not confirm or deny - or could not remember - that he had told visiting US officials that "If National was the government, we'd repeal the ban by lunchtime." He then went on to describe himself as a "peacenik" and said he personally opposed nuclear ship visits.

Then he was obliged to condemn a speech made last week by his defence spokesman and cabinet No.3 Simon Power, to a party conference, in which Power said National would join its allies in war "wheresover our commitment is called upon" - ie, jump when told to jump:

"It is absolutely not National Party policy," a miffed Dr Brash told The Dominion Post yesterday. "(No) New Zealand government would ever surrender the sovereign right to decide when New Zealand troops go to war."

Amid world-wide revulsion at horrific pictures of allied abuse of Iraqi prisoners, Dr Brash has also suggested his party's support for sending fighting troops to Iraq might have been a mistake.

"At the time I happily went along with caucus' position, which was one of supporting our sending troops to Iraq.

"The present situation looks an absolute mess."

Um, so what was the policy again? Labour should of course, be making merry with this flip-flopping, but it has its own problems - and Helen Clark's claim in the Sunday Star Times to be regally unruffled was unconvincing. She also claimed the "haters and wreckers" crack was intentional and calculated: even if that's the case, it doesn't make it any less dumb.

Rather than currying favour with the voters who have drifted towards Brash, I think it offended a basic sense of fairness in a good many other Pakeha New Zealanders, and stoked establishment Maori anger. Clark's gracelessness also obscured the fact that other ministers did better - including Parekura Horomia, who, in adversity, probably had his strongest week as a minister. And all in pursuit of what sounded like, even in her own words, a personal grudge ("I have been ritually humiliated and insulted by the leadership of that group for years and I draw a line"). As I've noted before, Clark is perennially more likely to be hung for what she says than what she does. We've just seen it again.

Anyway, responses from last week: Mikaere Curtis of Te Arawa, who attended several hui on the seabed and foreshore issue and marched on the hikoi, said its "fundamental position" had been misunderstood or ignored by the media:

We are seeking Customary Title to the foreshore and seabed, based on two principles - customary rights and Article 2 of Te Tiriti

In addition we seek legislation that enshrines customary title of the foreshore and seabed, in a such way that it can never be converted to fee simple (private) title. Never sold, never transferred.

Furthermore, we want to guarantee access to the public, subject to reasonable limits (for example, the duration of a tapu-lifting ceremony should there be a death on the beach).

Doesn't all this sound a lot like the "no freehold title, and no exclusive right of access" you mentioned in your Thursday post?

Yes, it does - but would it then also be true that what the government offers is, while clearly short of what is being sought, not exactly a million miles away either? As I've said before, I think the Treaty Tribes position - that the government's offer would be the basis for negotiation after due process had determined the extent of rights (and that's the difference) - seems a reasonable one to me.( If I had my way, that's what the government would do. Whether it's politically viable now is another matter.)

Mikaere acknowledges that "the bit where it gets complicated is in the exercising of rights, particularly rights regarding economic development" but points to the Te Arawa agreement, which places 14 lakes in the ownership of local hapu, with access and existing commercial developments guaranteed, while "new development must be approved by the affected hapu."

I had thought of this: but at the risk of agreeing with Gerry Brownlee, I have to, er, agree with Gerry Brownlee: landlocked bodies of water, which can be entirely contained within private land, aren't precisely comparable to the seabed and foreshore, which extend from the high tide mark to our marine territorial limits. I think there's also a different emotional response among many New Zealanders.

Had the outstanding Tainui harbour claim been resolved in a similar way before the Appeal Court decision the way forward might have been much easier. Actually, what happens now for Tainui might contain the beginning of a way out. The select committee stage of this bill is going to be very interesting (as will, whenever it happens, NZ First's promised marae tour to cheerlead for the legislation).

But the case brought by the upper South Island iwi that resulted in the Appeal Court decision would have been pointless if it amounted only to what is being sought above: it was brought in pursuit of the right to undertake marine farming ventures after the iwi had been repeatedly denied marine farming consents by the local district council (which did, on the face of it, conduct its business in a racist fashion) under the Resource Management Act while they were granted to non-Maori companies, and repeatedly been unsuccessful in opposing other applications. If the latter grievance could be satisfied under the proposal above, I can't see how the former would. So I'm still a bit confused. (Anyway, Briony Davies of Chapmann Tripp knocked out a list of bullet points on the meaning of the decision last year, which is a quick and useful read.)

On the matter of the Tainui hikoi spokesman who burbled on Holmes last week about Maori owning the whole coastline and controlling access, Mikaere was in agreement: "It's stupid, counterproductive, and plainly wrong. Although I must admit that the irony of it has not gone unnoticed though. Throughout the entire foreshore & seabed debate, the Maori side of the analysis, especially from the academic elements, has been first rate - timely, exhaustive and (IMHO) accurate ... and then Holmes chooses to interview someone from the moronic edge of the spectrum."

Ewan Morris also responded:

Of course the marchers in the hikoi didn't all want exactly the same thing - that's in the nature of crowds and protests. But they were united in opposition to the government's legislation, even if they were coming from different perspectives.

Yes, many Maori believe, contrary to what the Court of Appeal held, that they already own the whole of the foreshore and seabed. Many more understand that what the Court of Appeal left open was the right to go through the courts to determine whether or not particular areas of foreshore and seabed are still customary Maori land. Any protest inevitably requires simple slogans - would you really expect people to chant 'One two three four/Some Maori may own some of the foreshore'?

On the question of compensation, yes the government has left this open, but that's pretty pathetic for people who have lost their property rights. Would anyone else accept that, if a court finds that they have been deprived of their property, the government will discuss with them the possibility of redress, which may or may not be granted, and may or may not involve compensation? The government has handled this whole issue appallingly badly. Of course, National would have handled it much worse, but that's not much consolation.

Philip thought that it all went to prove his point - that influential sovereigntist Maori want things that shouldn't be delivered:

Despite Willie Jackson's disingenuous claims that all Maori want is equal access to due process, the only rational motive for taking a case to the Appeal Court is the expectation that they would win private freehold title to the foreshore. And what we know of this Court would strongly suggest that this would be the likely outcome.

Then what Russell? 85% of the population would reject this outcome at a very real personal level. I know I would. Electorally the result would be a majority conservative government that would have to legislate for Crown ownership, overriding the Appeals Court decision and occasioning even more protest.

For almost 20 years I associated with Maori at a community level. I have attended over 400 marae functions. Maori are not a politically homogenous group in any sense, but a radical element has always existed. Their agenda is simple - restoration of iwi sovereignty as prior to the Treaty of Waitangi 1842 status and the expulsion of the colonising whites. As per Robert Mugabe."

Ah, Zimbabwe again. Meanwhile, Steve dug out an Act newsletter noting the cranky judge Hingston's role in the issue.

Pat Snedden, whose speech on post-Orewa Aotearoa was very popular on Public Address, has kindly supplied me with the text of a new speech, focusing on the seabed and foreshore, which I'll post here tomorrow.