Hard News by Russell Brown

Cans of worms

Buy this week's Listener. Read it. That'll be a pinot gris thanks, Finlay. But seriously, the wry feature by Bruce Ansley and a typically diligent analysis by Steven Price represent your best chance of grasping just how difficult and complex the seabed and foreshore issue actually is.

Along with the Weekend Herald's lead story - which revealed the finding that a third of our coastline is in private hands and we have no automatic right to walk on it - it shows quite clearly why the government, having jumped the gun when the Court of Appeal found that Maori had the right to seek title to parts of the seabed and foreshore through the Maori Land Court, subsequently pulled its head in. It wasn't just the Maori MPs putting on the squeeze. It was the opening of a very big can o' worms.

Chief among the ironies explored in Ansley's story is the story of how National MP Nick Smith was kicked off a local beach. Smith has, with Bill English, fronted the campaign to defend public access to our beaches from the threat of Maori title raised by the recent Appeal Court decision. But it wasn't Maori who ejected Smith: it was a Pakeha farmer. And then there's the case of the German steel magnate who has the same right to eject trespassers from the island she bought on the same estuary. Are foreign millionaires to have rights denied to Maori?

So National's "policy" is, yet again, a hopelessly conflicted mess. The front page of the party's Beaches For All website states, unequivocally: "The Government must legislate to confirm Crown ownership of beaches foreshore and seabed. This is what National would do."

But then we get to yesterday's press release, where suddenly National is campaigning "to ensure that the remaining foreshore and seabed was safeguarded for all, regardless of race, by means of legislation to preserve exclusive Crown title." The remaining foreshore and seabed? That's quite a difference, isn't it?

Act's position has been more consistent, but nowhere near as much as it likes to pretend. Its Justice spokesman Stephen Franks appears to have acknowledged in the media that the Appeal Court's judgement was quite orthodox - and then issued press releases like this one, bitching about "activist judges". Franks's view is that the incorrect - and racist - precedent established in 1963 should be upheld because to do otherwise would be, well, too upsetting.

Richard Prebble, in this June 27 press release, said that Labour could have simply declared that the foreshore "like the Queen’s Chain, belongs to us all and no claim will be considered." Note that: the foreshore belongs to all of us, which is, Prebble said, "what the Appeal Court said in 1960, and what Parliament thought was the law for 150 years."

This itself appeared to be something of a backdown from a press release only four days previous from Franks, in which he said he would be urging the Act caucus to "vote with the Government if it brought in a package along the following lines: 'The law should confirm that foreshore and seabed are the Crown's, or held on grant from the Crown'."

Fast forward, then, to this week's statement from Act's deputy leader, Ken Shirley, which declares the Queen's Chain to be "mythical" and appears to say that any move similar to that which Franks was urging on the government in June would be "a new assault on property rights". Confused? You have every right to be.

Franks, meanwhile, is saying that property rights are absolute, and that "if land is to be taken for our collective use, then we must pay collectively." He conveniently doesn't venture a guess as to what it might cost to compensate the owners of a third of New Zealand's coastline in return for public access.

But, like too many people who have waded into this debate, he appears to employ "one law for all" as code for "a different law for Maori". The Maori property right, he says, lacks the "certainty" of other rights. And, then there's this: "No access, use or control privilege should be decided by race or ethnic inheritance." So when, say, Doug Myers, passes on both his ethnicity (it would be hard to do otherwise, wouldn't it?) and his property to his descendants, that's okay. But "ethnic inheritance" for Maori is "racist". Quit while you're ahead, Stephen.

Meanwhile, the background to SIS's unease about Ahmed Zaoui is becoming clearer. This story in the Dom Post includes speculation that Zaoui was on a list of 350 Islamist militants known to be abroad and suspected by Algerian intelligence of having links to Osama Bin Laden that was provided to Washington just after the September 11 attacks. The problem is that it was provided by the same Algerian government which, according to Human Rights Watch, has been responsible for the "disappearance" of more than 7000 people, "more than the number recorded in any other country during the past decade except wartime Bosnia." Whatever the military government might have said about joining the war on terror, these are not the good guys and can't really be trusted.

But neither, of course, can the country's Islamic militants, who have committed grotesque atrocities on their own people. And even if Zaoui is - as the better evidence suggests - a member only of the non-armed FIS, what values did he sign up to there?

Rodger Donaldson pointed out by email that the FIS's expressed attitude to women and democracy is alarming.

"While I haven't been able to unearth much on the FIS' attitude toward homosexuality, Jews (or other non-Islamic faiths), or censorship, the picture painted is of nothing so much as a viper New Zealand appears to be clasping to its bosom," Roger says.

"New Zealand faces the same problem many liberal European nations are now wrestling with - what do we do about immigrants (whether Muslim refugees or rich American Christians) whose value system is marked by a desire to reduce the very diversity and openness that allows them to move into society in the first place?"

And yet, other evidence about Zaoui paints a picture of a tolerant man, one of pluralist beliefs and actions. I understand that the 250-page refugee authority report has some interesting material in this respect - I haven't had a chance to read it yet. But it's not hard to see, with complex cases and conflicting imperatives like those in play here, why some people find it easier to retreat into certainty, whether that certainty is warranted or not.