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Image: vivan Hutchinson
Image: vivan Hutchinson

ĀteaJanuary 11, 2019

Why did the Crown support the Waitara Lands Bill when hapū weren’t all on board?

Image: vivan Hutchinson
Image: vivan Hutchinson

The Waitara Lands Bill passed its third reading in December – settling one of Aotearoa’s longest-running land disputes – despite only one of two hapū giving their support. Why has the government allowed this to happen, asks Leonie Pihama.

I received a parliamentary alert in December that read, “The following documents matching your alert criteria have been published. 19 Dec 2018 – New Plymouth District Council (Waitara Lands) Bill.” I had set up the alert for the Taranaki Māori Women’s Network to ensure we were informed of the progression of the Bill. This was to ‘alert’ us that the New Plymouth District Council (Waitara Lands) Bill had on December 18, 2018 been given Royal Assent. Unsurprisingly, the alert was two days late.

The Royal Assent is the final phase of the Bill where the representative of the Crown gives the ‘royal’ agreement to the enactment of  legislation. It is yet another hangover of British colonial rule over Māori – another lived example of the fact that colonisation is not a single event but is embedded in structures and systems under which indigenous peoples are forced to live after colonial invasion. Royal Assent in this case is also a contemporary act of Crown oppression of the hapū of Waitara.

It is now a month since the third reading of the Bill on December 12, where all but the Green Party voted for its progression. The Bill was introduced into Parliament in September 2016 by Jonathan Young, National MP for New Plymouth, and the first reading was held on September 17. It was then was referred to the Māori Select Committee. It is widely known that the majority of the submissions to the Māori Select Committee were against the Bill and that the final recommendation from the Select Committee was to move forward with some amendments. At that point it was clear that the hapū voices were again being subsumed by the view of the New Plymouth District Council, Taranaki Regional Council and the Waitara Leaseholders Association.

For two years both Manukorihi and Ōtaraua hapū have actively engaged with the Crown, councils and individual ministers from all political parties. It has been a gruelling two years on top of a history of marginalisation in the Te Ātiawa Treaty settlement process and a denial of their fundamental rights to seek resolution over the Pekapeka Block and other Waitara lease lands, and living with a history where just a few years after the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi the first acts of moving upon Waitara are documented. The hapū of Waitara have been consistent in seeking to maintain the position of ‘He riro whenua atu, me hoki whenua mai. The lands were taken and so they should be returned’. Where some have referred to this as a complex issue, it’s really very simple. Our history tells us that Waitara was never to be given or sold by our people, as Wiremu King stated in a letter to Donald McLean, the chief Land Purchase Commissioner in the 1850s:

“These lands will not be given by us into the Governor’s and your hands, lest we resemble the seabirds which perch on a rock. When the tide flows the rock is covered by the sea, and the birds take flight, for they have no resting place.”

Last November, a news piece by RNZ titled ‘Hapū divided over Waitara Lands Bill’ created an impression that Manukorihi and Ōtaraua hapū were going to come to a joint agreement on the Bill. For those present at the various hui, this was never promoted by either hapū. Rather, it was clear within those hui that the rangatiratanga, and the right for each hapū to be self-determining, would be affirmed and supported. And that is what has happened. As Manukorihi moved as a hapū to support the Bill, Ōtaraua continued to raise issues with the wording and content. Rawiri Doorbar, spokesperson for Ōtaraua, was quoted:

“…we were asked to make a decision at our last meeting on a Bill that needed to sell itself – no one was there to sell it for them – and it was felt there was still work that needed to be done on it before it could be fully supported.

But not wanting to kill the opportunity to continue the conversation we decided to continue with the work and we’ve reserved the right to say ‘no’ pending on the outcome of the preamble work and also there’s a little bit of legal advice we are seeking this week as well.”

Reading the news reporting on December 13, the pain, anger and disgust that the Bill was passed was palpable for many hapū members and for groups such as ours, the Taranaki Māori Womens Network, who have walked alongside both hapū throughout this phase. In another article titled ‘Long-running land dispute at Waitara close to resolution’ MP Jonathan Young referred to reaching a conclusion with this Bill as “absolutely amazing” and speaks to the Bill as somehow being the outcome of an agreement by both hapū, when that is not the case. While it was noted that the Greens voted against the Bill because, as Marama Davidson put it: “We do not feel that we have the full mandate of all hapū in order to support this bill in its entirety,” one would be hard pressed to find any reports that in fact Ōtaraua hapū had withdrawn their support, except for a story by Taranaki Herald journalist Deena Coster, in a more appropriately titled article ‘Controversial land bill passes third reading in Parliament’. During the week prior to the third reading a range of organisations supporting Ōtaraua hapū sent letters of concern to members of Parliament and media outlets highlighting the impact of the Bill on the rights of hapū in Waitara. We sought to remind the government that in 1995 the Minister of Justice, Doug Graham, informed the Councils that he, and his government, could not support such a Bill, stating:

“I have been asked by the Government to advise you that the Government remains concerned that if the Crown, in its role as legislator, were to support the enactment of the bill it could be seen to be in breach of its duty under the Treaty of Waitangi to act in good faith towards a Treaty partner. The Government is therefore not prepared to support the bill at this stage particularly in light of the importance to Taranaki Maori of the area covered by the bill.”

This leads us to the question of why this government were so adamant in pushing forward. In the months leading up to the Bill the accepted view was that for the Bill to proceed both hapū needed to be in agreement with its content. If that was not the case, then the Bill would be withdrawn.

Throughout this most recent process, Ōtaraua have consistently and openly voiced the issues that they have with the way in which the Crown and the many variations of local and regional councils have continued to force the hapū into untenable situations of colonial denial of their rights to have their lands returned. The decision by Ōtaraua to not support the Bill should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Nor should it be seen as some uninformed attempt to halt the process. Both Manukorihi and Ōtaraua hapū have undertaken extensive hui, wānanga and information sharing processes. They have done that against the might of not only the Crown, but also of the New Plymouth City Council and the Taranaki Regional Council, all of whom have endless resources to fund their position and have garnered those resources from generations of profits and benefits that come from being the beneficiaries of stolen lands. Neither of the hapū of Waitara have such resources, as is the case for all whānau, hapū and iwi that struggle under the mantle of a colonial system that denies our sovereignty on our own lands.

I have been asked on a number of occasions – why did Ōtaraua not support the Bill? The more accurate question is – why did the Crown support the Bill? And why have they alongside the New Plymouth District Council and the Taranaki Regional Council embedded another piece of legislation that further denies the rights of Ōtaraua hapū to say no to yet another act of dispossession of their lands?. We must also ask why no MPs within Labour, National or New Zealand First asked the critical questions about the withdrawal of Ōtaraua.

The assertion of the rights of hapū to fight against further colonial oppression is not the issue here. The issue is that in 2018 we have seen, as we did in 2005 with the Foreshore and Seabed, another act of contemporary colonising theft of Waitara lands. Just days before the third reading of the Bill I asked a close friend, a long serving Māori lawyer: “Do you have any thoughts on what Ōtaraua hapū can do in terms of this reading of the Waitara (stolen) lands bill?” To which she replied “You need an MP to be brave and try and slow the process down.”

Sadly, outside of the Green Party, there were no other brave MPs in parliament that day.

Keep going!