Hard News by Russell Brown

On the beaches

So the foreshores are to be in the public domain, but not owned by the Crown. It's an interesting solution to a really nasty problem - and apart from anything else, one would think a few libertarians would be excited by the idea of a public commons that isn't vested in the state.

But, of course, there is politics to be played out. National has tried to work the politics of resentment for all it's worth - and succeeded only, according to the latest One News poll, in delivering votes to New Zealand First, which does resentment better than anyone else and always will.

Some out-and-out racists - like the no-neck from Nelson on 3 News last night - are getting air, the most irritating activist in the country, Ken Mair, has been reactivated, and almost everyone seems, or claims, to be angry, apart from the government, which claims to be fairly levitating with the spirit of nation-building.

Frankly, we want to be careful here. This issue is important, and, thrown to the wolves of populism, it has the potential for to be deeply socially corrosive.

Basically, IANAL (I Am Not A Lawyer, for those of you who don't speak Usenet), but the idea of land being in the public domain, although new here, is not unknown in other jurisdictions. In California, where various undesirable titles were acquired in the settlement rush, it has been used to reclaim stretches of foreshore for public use, providing inalienable access rights, without actually extinguishing title.

The government has been variously accused of both dangerous dithering and rushing the issue - sometimes in the same programme. On The Last Word last night, the news bulletin began with the words "The government finally came up with its solution to a problem that's been dividing the country for months." Well, given that the Court of Appeal handed down its decision on June 19, and the government outlined its approach to the issue on June 26, it's more than one month and just shy of two. A few minutes later, Pam was demanding to know of John Tamihere why the planned consultation period of six weeks was so short.

So now we're in the endurance phase: that is, enduring the shouting of the odds from various usual suspects. Like Titewhai Harawira, who claimed on Morning Report today that that all the beaches belong to "the Maori nation". No they don't, and that's not what the Appeal Court said.

The court allowed that specific groups who believed they could prove a continuous customary use of the foreshore and seabed in a certain area could go to the Maori Land Court to seek a vesting order, the effect of which would be "to change the status of land from Maori customary land (held according to tikanga Maori) to Maori freehold land." That is, plain old European-style private property.

Maori groups still have the right to go to the Maori Land Court to assert and explore customary rights which may, in the end nearly amount to title, in which case the government will enter discussions which could lead to some compensation. It seems a reasonable middle path to me; less overtly a land grab or confiscation than declaring the land Crown property would have been, but equally protective of public access.

One problem for the government is that in the week after the Appeal Court decision, the attorney general Margaret Wilson actually did say that Crown ownership would be asserted. For both practical and political reasons, that is not to be the case.

Anyway, the Herald has a very good editorial on the topic this morning, but it has not, for some reason, been posted to the paper's website. It declares, correctly, that:

The government's dilemma is clear: while there was never much doubting the state of public opinion, this is a society based on law and property rights. When no less an authority than the Court of Appeal finds a property right exists, the Government should not simply expunge it. The proposals the government announced yesterday steer a delicate middle course.

And it concludes:

If these proposals seem to Maori to expunge a potential property right, it should be remembered that the claimants were a long way from establishing the case in the Maori Land Court. Ironically, they might find it easier to do so if customary ownership does not amount to exclusive title. If the mana of iwi and hapu can be recognised without alienating ownership of the coast, the foreshore and seabed saga will have a happy conclusion.

Had it been a slower news day, would the opening of the Local Government and Environment select committee inquiry in the Corngate allegations have been more widely reported? It's hard to say. But I would have thought we would have heard more of the evidence given by Donald Hannah, the Erma scientist everyone wanted to hear from when Corngate was raging. National Radio reported his evidence - that there was "confusion" over tests, but he did not believe there was evidence of GM contamination, and there was never a tolerance level - and the Dom Post has a story. The Herald's story isn't online for some reason, but the One News story is on NZoom.

But, weirdly, TV3, which ought to be owning the story, barely acknowledged it - no report, just a few seconds of video and the comment, in script, that "officials were defending themselves". If it's good enough for a gotcha, surely it's good enough to report the inquiry?

Speaking of scandals, the underlying cause of last week's Northeast American power blackouts seems pretty clear. If you run a network - any network - at or near capacity for long enough, it will eventually bite you in the arse. That was the warning to the US Congress two years ago. Why was the network running so close to capacity? Because, as this story points out: "Deregulation of the power industry has left energy companies with insufficient incentive to invest in new transmission lines or enough generating capacity." Frankly, the model hasn't worked, and the Bush administration - especially after those secret policy meetings with Enron - has been there long enough to own the problem.

The Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of the British weapons scientist Dr David Kelly has been fascinating. It has exposed some embarrassing fault lines in the BBC - these perhaps are common to public broadcasting organisations - particularly through the evidence of Newsnight's Susan Watts, in which she said she had been pressured by management, which wanted to use her interviews with Kelly to corroborate Andrew Gilligan's story. But I thought her statement that, yes, Kelly had mentioned Alastair Campell and alterations to the weapons dossier in the same breath, she hadn't thought to include it because it was a "gossipy aside". You what, love? Anyone in a private media organisation, especially in the competitive British market, who walked past a story like that would probably have been fired.

Anyway, documents released to the inquiry now show that the dossier was hardened up in the days before its publication and that intelligence officers were very uneasy about what the government was saying about it. Former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings has an interesting column about what it means for journalists.

Tracey Nelson was too busy getting back from having it large with our rugby gang in Auckland to complete her excellent All Black game stats in a timely manner this week, but the replays on the lineouts have been analysed and make interesting reading. Mealamu seems largely to blame for the first three lost lineouts, but, really, you have to forgive him given that the rest of his game was truly outstanding. There are midfield backs who'd like to be able to step through the gap and unload to Howlett the way he did for the first try.

Yet Carlos, who I'd expected to be right at home on Eden Park, had a 'mare. It wasn't just the three missed kicks at goal, it was the very average (with the exception of his pinpoint chip for Howlett's second try) kicking from the hand. What happened to those huge touchfinders he was banging up the sideline right through the Super 12 season? Is he under instruction to play a different game plan? And if so, is it the right one?

It is now clear that this is a team designed and built to play on hard grounds in Australia in dry, Spring conditions. It can clearly prevail, at home in the wet, but without the same dazzling style it displays on fast tracks.

So it was with relief as much as jubilation that we greeted the the reclamation of the Bledisloe Cup. It wasn't so much that winning it was great as that not winning it would have been awful beyond belief.

And on, we went into the night: thanks to Gina's for keeping the kitchen open for us: the food and ambience were as fabulous as usual. It was a shame later on that a great bill at the Galatos birthday party was completely messed up when the PA overheated, delivering blasts of full-spectrum white noise and reducing the Goldenhorse set to about four songs and delaying Che Fu so long that I was off out the door. I understand Goldenhorse will be playing a free gig to make up for it. Aren't they nice?