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Scenes from the hīkoi to parliament, including Tāme Iti issuing a challenge to politicians, May 5, 2004 (Photos: Getty Images)
Scenes from the hīkoi to parliament, including Tāme Iti issuing a challenge to politicians, May 5, 2004 (Photos: Getty Images)

ĀteaMay 2, 2024

A new generation of activism: Marking 20 years since the foreshore and seabed hīkoi

Scenes from the hīkoi to parliament, including Tāme Iti issuing a challenge to politicians, May 5, 2004 (Photos: Getty Images)
Scenes from the hīkoi to parliament, including Tāme Iti issuing a challenge to politicians, May 5, 2004 (Photos: Getty Images)

Two decades ago this week, a controversial law that attempted to define ownership of the foreshore and seabed prompted a formidable display of outrage and kōtahitanga as 15,000 marched to parliament. Jamie Tahana looks back.

‘Hīkoi, hīkoi,” they chanted by the thousands as the biggest Māori march in a generation wound its way through the narrow streets of the capital 20 years ago this week. “Hīkoi ki pāremata” and “Two, four, six, eight, don’t you bloody legislate” echoed among the high rises of Lambton Quay. Elders and tamariki from iwi, hapū and whānau across the land were there, braving a bitingly cold storm, led by kākahu-wearing, taiaha-wielding warriors and a giant banner, “Māori Seabed, For Shore!” At least 15,000, by official counts, swelled onto the lawn of parliament, Wellington awash with the black, white and red of tino rangatiratanga. 

The hīkoi’s arrival at parliament, and its movement through cities and towns across the country – including over the Auckland Harbour Bridge – was a formidable display of outrage and kōtahitanga that would give rise to a new political party, but also come to define a new generation of Māori activism. “It was pretty cool to get amongst it,” recalled Tanira Fisher-Marama, who was seven at the time. “It was cool to see so many people with all their signs, flags and banners.”

The Labour-led government was developing a law to define ownership of the entire foreshore and seabed, a panicked reaction to a ruling from the Court of Appeal. In one sweeping piece of legislation, millions of acres was legislated away in what many iwi and hapū saw as the biggest annexation since the 19th century.

The hīkoi arrives in Wellington to a bitingly cold storm (Photo: Ross Setford/Getty Images)

The buildup to this started in the 1980s, when the eight iwi of Te Tau Ihu (the top of the South Island) wanted to start a mussel farm in their traditional fishing grounds. They applied for a licence from the local council, only to be repeatedly rejected while four Pākehā organisations were granted concessions. The iwi took it to the courts, arguing they had a customary right to the foreshore and seabed of their area. In 2003, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Māori Land Court had the jurisdiction to determine whether the foreshore and seabed could be customary land. It was an orthodox application of the common law, an unremarkable ruling that made no determination of ownership, just that Māori had the right to seek due process through the courts.

But this was New Zealand in the early 2000s, where the atmosphere around race relations was febrile. Opposition to the Treaty process was intense, with regular attacks against so-called privileges and the settlements of the past decade. The government of prime minister Helen Clark was on the back foot, having just abandoned a “closing the gaps” policy aimed at reducing disparities between Māori and Pākehā. “We had pollsters too, and we knew that policies to support Māori to rise were not popular,” Clark would tell RNZ’s The 9th Floor in 2017. “We knew it would strike a chord, a not very pleasant chord.” 

Māori affairs minister Parekura Horomia, prime minister Helen Clark and deputy PM Michael Cullen announcing the government’s foreshore and seabed policy on April 7, 2004 (Photo: Ross Setford/Getty Images)

So, in 2003, when the Court of Appeal innocuously suggested that the iwi of Te Tau Ihu had the right to test their property rights in court, it sparked a fevered panic across the country. Everyday Kiwis would be banned from the beaches, the fear merchants claimed, and our God-given right to race a Hilux down Ninety Mile Beach, cast a line from Muriwai or pass out in a sand dune at Mt Maunganui on New Year’s Eve was now under threat from Māori, who would block the beaches. “Ordinary New Zealanders, who have shown a remarkable degree of tolerance to Treaty claims and spending on Māori issues, have had enough,” said the National MP Nick Smith, as he launched a petition to “save our beaches”. One protest in Nelson, attended by Smith and the United Future leader Peter Dunne, saw placards that read “whites have rights too” and “honour the Crown”. 

Meanwhile, National made Don Brash its leader in October 2003, and he was promising to rein in such policies, with the foreshore and seabed a particular focus. A few months later, he delivered a now infamous speech in Ōrewa, lamenting a so-called Treaty “grievance industry”, the injection of the principles of the Treaty into legislation, and the “fateful decision” to have the Waitangi Tribunal empowered to investigate Crown actions dating back to 1840. He received a 17% bump in the polls. 

The hīkoi makes its way across the Auckland Harbour Bridge on April 27, and down Lambton Quay on May 5 (Photos: Getty Images)

The Clark government’s response to the Court of Appeal ruling was panicked. In a press release three days after the decision, the government said it would legislate to “resolve the issue”, deciding two months later to bring the entire foreshore and seabed into Crown ownership in what Clark called a “win-win” decision. There was one galling exception: the foreshore and seabed that was already owned by private individuals. But for many Māori, that win-win decision to ignore due process was instead a sweeping annexation of more than 10 million hectares. Seeing raupatu repeated, they weren’t going to take this lying down. 

In April 2004, a large hui was convened by Ngāti Kahungunu, where a decision was made to march on parliament. Reaching in from all corners of the country, it would stop at towns along the way to hold rallies. It set off from the tip of the North Island, gathering hundreds as it made its way down State Highway One. It spilled over the Auckland Harbour Bridge, thousands of people marching in an echo of the famous land march of 29 years earlier. 

“When we were on the hīkoi across the bridge I remember being with my mates, taking turns holding our banner and calling the chants,” Fisher-Marama said. “At kura we learnt a lot about Whina Cooper and the land march that took place in 75. We then started putting together signs and banners for the hīkoi.”

Rangatahi taking part in the 2004 hīkoi hold the famous photo of Dame Whina Cooper leading the 1975 land march (Photo: Ross Setford/Getty Images)

One of the organisers, the veteran Ngā Tamatoa activist Hone Harawira, would be asked how many people he expected to get to Wellington. “I said if it’s just me, Manu [hīkoi organiser Manuera Riwai] and my Mrs I’ll be kind of embarrassed, if there’s a couple of hundred I’ll be happy,” he told RNZ’s Matangireia series. At least 15,000 people showed up, by official estimates, one of the largest protests to ever reach the gates of parliament. “What it is is the same old faces – the Ken Mairs, the Harawira families, the Annette Sykes – the haters and wreckers,” said Helen Clark as the hīkoi approached. 

Labour’s Māori MPs, waiting on the steps of parliament, had to come face-to-face with kuia, kaumātua, activists and tamariki, weighing the fraught choice between party, whānau, iwi and hapū. Tariana Turia had already decided to walk from Labour over it, and would go on to form Te Pāti Māori. “I certainly knew that it was going to be a moment that would define those of us who were tangata whenua in parliament. People would have to be prepared to either stand with our people, or against them. I wasn’t prepared to stand against them,” she told Matangireia. Few of her Labour colleagues would ever speak to her again. Nanaia Mahuta voted against the bill at first, but later decided to stay with Labour out of “pure pragmatism”. The late Parekura Horomia, who had to front a series of rushed consultation hui alongside Michael Cullen, opted to support it, though he made no secret of how agonising that was. 

Tariana Turia, who days earlier had announced she would resign from Labour, greets a supporter as the hīkoi arrives at parliament on May 5 (Photo: Ross Setford/Getty Images)
When the third vote finally came, the final tally was 66 in favour, 54 against. There was a lone voice from the back corner of the chamber: Tariana Turia, “one vote opposed”. Many of her former Labour colleagues would never speak to her again. In a column for the NZ Herald, Moana Jackson called it a parliamentary show of unity not seen on a Māori issue since the land confiscations of the 19th century. One year later, Labour was punished in the Māori seats, losing four of the seven to Te Pāti Māori. 

The Waitangi Tribunal would later find the Foreshore and Seabed Act not only breached the Treaty, but also violated the wider norms of domestic and international law that underpin good governance. Ultimately, the act barely lasted a decade. It was replaced by the Marine and Coastal Area Act when National, under John Key, came to power as part of its coalition with Te Pāti Māori. Key’s attorney-general, Christopher Finlayson, wrote in his 2021 book on Treaty settlements, “I am still astounded that, in the early years of the 21st century, an advanced democracy like New Zealand decided the best decision was to legislate and extinguish the potential property rights of every person of Māori descent.”

The hīkoi arriving at parliament on May 5, 2004 (Photo: DEAN TREML/AFP via Getty Images)

Still, in that same 2017 interview, Clark was unrepentant about the Foreshore and Seabed Act. “For me as a Kiwi, the right to be able to walk along the sea coast is pretty precious,” she said. “It was a call and it wasn’t an easy call. If someone had given the brilliant advice that it could be classified as not belonging to anybody that might have been quite helpful, but I don’t quite recall ever having such advice.” 

For Fisher-Marama, now 20 years older, he might not have grasped the significance at the time, but the experience has stuck with him. “I was there,” he bellowed proudly. “I didn’t exactly know what we were doing or why we were doing it, but I remember seeing a lot of people upset, angry, crying so thought that it must be for an important kaupapa.

“[It] definitely left an impact bro … Very much opened my eyes to the world of Māori protest and the role we all play in upholding our mana Māori and rangatiratanga.”

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