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Relax, Māori aren’t banning you from the beach. Or are we?

The foreshore and seabed debate is back for the umpteenth time with a claim for customary rights lodged in the High Court. And right on cue Māori are cast as seeking to destroy the Kiwi dream holiday. How about starting with some less stupid questions, suggests Morgan Godfery.

And here we are, the foreshore and seabed debate, version 661, where the most important question is: what does this mean for my summer tanning schedule? Never mind, you know, Māori, all I want to know is whether I can race my Toyota Hilux down Ninety Mile Beach, cast my long line off the Coromandel Coast, or coma out at Mt Maunganui on New Year’s Eve. These are the questions I care about. These are the questions Kiwis care about. Where’s the number for Newstalk ZB?

In some ways, this is taking the piss – no one’s worried about their God-given right to hoon down Ninety Mile beach, except on talkback radio – but in other ways it’s dead serious. Every time the country debates the foreshore and seabed someone, like The Project’s Jesse Mulligan, will ask whether “Māori claims to the coastline” mean some Kiwis will find themselves “banned from the beach”. Don Brash will emerge somewhere at some point.

The government will talk it down, whispering sweet assurance to Pākehā New Zealand. “I don’t think [Maanu Paul’s] got a chance in the world,” said Attorney-General Chris Finlayson of the claim lodged in the High Court. Yet this strikes me as a bizarre beginning and end. Instead of asking why iwi, hapu and some individuals are making claims in the first place, parts of the media speculate about What It Means For You and the Government comes out to reassure people It Doesn’t Mean Much At all.

If you’re non-Māori, I assume this is vaguely comforting. You’re not going to arrive at the family bach and find the local hapū squatting in the master bedroom. But for many Māori there’s a great deal of psychic harm knowing your rights are another person’s political fear. People who took to the streets to protest the last Labour government’s Foreshore and Seabed Act, a law designed to prevent iwi and hapū establishing customary title to the foreshore and seabed, were condemned as “haters and wreckers”.

The Hikoi protesting seabed and foreshore legislation, April 2004. Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images

I’m sure some people (Hobson’s Pledge!) think much worse of Maanu Paul, a member of the New Zealand Māori Council who’s lodging a “claim on behalf of all Māori” for customary rights and customary marine title to the foreshore and seabed. You’ll notice this isn’t an application for “ownership”. Under the Marine and Coastal Area Act, the law that replaced the racist Foreshore and Seabed Act, no one can “own” the foreshore and seabed, meaning no one can “ban” you from it. But of course that doesn’t stop anyone speculating that this is precisely what’s going to happen.

(Well, minor qualification: in theory private owners can “ban” you from “their” beach. Both the Foreshore and Seabed Act and the Marine and Coastal Area Act left private titles to the foreshore and seabed intact while Māori rights were, in the first Act, practically extinguished, and in the second Act, reaffirmed but transformed. Private titles were probably left alone because they were, you know, mostly in the hands of people who were really, really rich and white. But of course no one talks about this.)

The problem with the foreshore and seabed debate, from version 1 to the current installment, is the qualities we cherish in our democracy we condemn in our politics. We revere a kind of abstract equality, but we hesitate when it means substantive rights for Māori. There are plenty of intellectuals and politicians who applaud the rule of law, yet few who supported the rule of law so much that they opposed the Foreshore and Seabed Act in 2004. Maybe if we had this discussion on principles rather than fear, we might get a little further than we are.

Maybe if we put Māori views first, rather than stupid questions about whether we’re banned from the beaches this summer, we might even resolve it.


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