Hard News by Russell Brown

Out of the cart?

It has gone curiously unremarked in the media that the Business Roundtable has warmly praised the submission from the Treaty Tribes Coalition on the foreshore and seabed issue. To its credit, the BRT is being consistent. Whatever its faults, it is founded in a bedrock of respect for property rights.

In its release on the issue, Roger Kerr even has an unsubtle poke at National, concluding: "Parties which support one rule of law for all New Zealanders ought to be particularly sympathetic to the Coalition's approach."

Stephen Franks also praised the Coalition's submission as an "inspiring document". So what's it say? I couldn't find a full copy online, but the gist of it appears to be: let it go to the courts. Kerr sums it up thus:

In a submission on the issue in October 2003, the Business Roundtable said that the court process should be allowed to run because “[i]t is the proper role of the courts to establish the nature and extent of Maori customary rights”. The submission argued that “existing private rights to the foreshore and seabed, including legitimate Maori customary rights to title (if any) and lesser common law rights” should be upheld. If the court process resulted in outcomes which the government judged were not in the public interest, it should intervene at that point and consider compensation for any takings of established property rights.

So there would still, in the end, need to be a political solution (and I don't think the political solution currently proposed is actually that bad) but it would be one made in a more informed and, one would hope, less political context. There are no doubt a few people in government wishing that they could start over and take this very path, but whether it is now politically possible is another matter.

It's a bit rich for Franks to be doling out the warm fuzzies now, though. Although Act appears to have settled on a policy not that far from what the Coalition proposes, the party had a significant role in the panic-mongering that followed the original Court of Appeal decision.

Back in August, I noted the various and conflicting policies Act MPs appeared to be simultaneously advancing. At the time, Franks' position could hardly have been further from what it is now. He was offering Act's votes to the government if it would legislate to confirm the foreshores in Crown ownership.

As recently as December, he was demanding a government rethink to the effect that: "All seabed and foreshore not under existing private title, Maori and Pakeha, will be confirmed in Crown ownership, and the Court of Appeal’s activist decision will be reversed, to restore the law that had applied for the previous hundred years."

The tune is quite different now. But everyone made their mistakes - remember that the-sky-is-falling Herald editorial in the wake of the Appeal Court decision? The coverage given to the ignorant bluster of the Marlborough mayor? Certainly, governments aren't supposed to hyperventilate the way Labour did, but it was under enormous pressure to reassure a public that, as we now quite clearly know, was about to go off the scale of antsiness.

With National apparently happy to pour away its intellectual honesty, I think Act has a useful role to play here. It should rein in its idiot fringe (you know who I mean), make a genuine, public, good-faith offer to support the government if it was to explore a path similar to that endorsed by Treaty Tribes and the BRT (perhaps even keeping the key elements of its current proposal, but as a matter for negotiation after the courts have clarified matters). Then Act should defend the government from the backlash, and encourage the BRT and similar groups to do the same. Would that get Labour out of the cart? Possibly. It might also get the country out of the cart. Just a thought.

Anyway, I continue to be reassured by the quality of thought from Hard News readers on the Treaty scare. A source who preferred not to be named had some comment on the participation of Maori in Institutional Biological Safety Committee, raised by Bart Janssen yesterday. The aim isn't, this person said, simply to have a Maori rubber stamp for research, but to actually develop knowledge and understanding of science in the Maori community. They also claimed that before the new IBSC system was developed, there had been some worryingly loose practices around research into native flora and fauna.

Reader Danny Butt also took issue with Bart:

As someone who has spent a fair bit of time on institutional research committees, I have to disagree strongly with Bart Janssen, while admiring his typically scientific way of confidently presenting perspectives as "facts".

Bart sees research in a framework that science historians call positivism. It sees research as about solving problems in science, and takes the benefit for society as something which is either self-evident, or at least something which scientists should be able to decide because of their scientific knowledge.

There is a longer argument that I won't bore you with about how science isn't as disinterested as it makes out (look for the work of Bruno Latour if you want to follow that up). But more importantly, at some unspecified time (commonly linked to nuclear physics :7), it became clear even to governments that scientists weren't the only people affected by scientific research. So there are a wider range of stakeholders in the benefits of scientific research, and that ethics always includes more than what happens in the lab.

Maori are included in the research ethics process, as they are in most other publicly-supported processes, because the government is legally bound under the Treaty to uphold Maori governance (the Pakeha version) or sovereignty (the Maori version) over any resources which are not specifically sold to the Crown. Even ignoring the legality, which I'll do because I'm not a lawyer, the Treaty is about two people with separate cultures who are stakeholders in what happens in New Zealand. The obvious argument for Maori representation on ethics committees is that they promote consideration of what research means for Maori development and Maori culture in a way which can't happen when they are not present.

The impact of not taking Maori perspectives into account is particularly crucial in the contemporary science environment where increasingly complex intellectual property agreements surround research results and their dissemination. Both institutions and private companies make a lot of money off these, and if it's to the exclusion of Maori development then it's wrong and probably illegal in the larger scheme of things, and likely to come back and bite researchers on the arse down the track. Researchers need to stop thinking about Maori as people they need to "consult" with to "gain consent" and start realising that Maori have a hell of a lot of knowledge about what it means to live here and that knowledge is at least as important as the stuff we circulate in our European scientific journals. Working with Maori isn't doing the housework, it's an opportunity.

Further feedback also on Welly: I am assured by a number of readers that Petone is indeed trendy.

And the best of the foreign press: on Salon, a high-ranking military officer spills, big-time, on what it was really like in US Department of Defense before the Iraq war. Everything you thought, but worse.