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The Waitara Lands Bill: ‘The land was stolen, therefore return it’

Carl Chenery appeals to other Pākehā to be courageous in commemorating the Land Wars and for peace in Waitara today.

Courage is turning towards hard truth, not turning away. The same goes for our colonial story here in Aotearoa. On 28 October, just a month after our elections, we will see the first national commemoration for the New Zealand Land Wars, starting in Northland.

It will also be a time for the government to revisit the Waitara Lands Bill currently before parliament. The lands in question were stolen at the start of the Land Wars in Taranaki in 1860, and their still-unresolved status provides us with a unique opportunity to bridge our uncomfortable history with the needs of peace and reconciliation today.

A month before our elections, the government held the second reading of the Waitara Lands Bill in parliament. The minister for treaty negotiations Chris Finlayson, who does not normally speak on the bills, did so and acknowledged that the Waitara issue had been left unresolved in the earlier Te Atiawa Settlement Bill: “There was one issue that hung over me like a cloud and it was the Waitara lands.”

Finlayson acknowledged the revisions in legislation were an improvement in that they had more fully recognised the Waitara hapū of Manukorihi and Ōtaraua, who were the original owners of the land.

However, the revised legislation still falls short of what the hapū have been consistently advocating – with the support of the majority of submitters who appeared at the Select Committee Hearings. This was the call to simply have the lands returned.

In their submission against the Waitara Lands Bill, the Manukorihi Hapū o Waitara said: “We oppose the [bill] in its entirety and would like all the Lands be returned to the Hapu o Whaitara at no cost and with no strings attached … Our main concern in relation to the Bill: The land was stolen: Hoki mai Te Whenua, therefore return it. At a recent hui, a question was asked, what do you do when you steal something? A child replied, ‘You give it back’. Do the right thing: Give the land back.”

Here’s where courage is needed: Rather than the government playing a role in the inaugural Land Wars Commemoration Day and educating us about this history while still perpetuating it, our government could instead educate us all by choosing to not continue the injustice.

The government can start by acknowledging the position the local hapū have been put in. With little resourcing, in a short timeframe and on top of existing mahi, whānau, hapū and marae commitments, they are being left to make a response to the latest legislation impacting the lands stolen from them, a response that could continue to affect them for generations to come.

But the government has still to step up to its own responsibilities. It could set in motion a proper process to see these troubled lands returned.

The Waitara lands in question are currently tied up in perpetual leases owned by the New Plymouth District Council. The council says they cannot just give the land back, as they are required by law to sell these properties at a proper market rate.

The Peace for Pekapeka hikoi in Waitara on 21st September 2016, the day that the Waitara Lands Bill legislation was introduced into Parliament. Image: Jane Dove Juneau

But the government can enable the council to return these lands by passing legislation that clearly says that the fiduciary responsibilities of the Local Government Act do not apply to stolen property. They can also legislate to break the perpetual nature of the current leases on the Waitara lands, and pay some compensation to the existing leaseholders. These are all powers within the hands of government.

In his submission to the select committee hearing, Auckland law professor David Williams said: “There is no good reason for local government entities to continue to reap rewards from the endowed land assets and there is even less reason for those entities to obtain unearned capital gains from the freeholding of leasehold lands over which they should never have had a legal interest in the first place. If the land was wrongly taken, then the most obvious starting point for a peace and reconciliation conversation in our own time should be to find a way to return the lands to those from whom they were taken.”

Some may say this is a local issue in Taranaki, not relevant to those in Auckland or other parts of the country. Well, following the outbreak of war in Waitara, the Crown and local settlers mobilised from Auckland to build the Great South Road as a preparation for invading Waikato – decimating a thriving people and economy, with consequences that have also survived until today.

The writer Brené Brown says that at a collective level, when we deny our history, it defines us. But when we own our history, we have the power to change the present and the future.

In his submission on the Bill, Community Taranaki trustee Vivian Hutchinson noted that after all this time since the Land Wars, it is important to recognise that a great many Māori and Pākehā are friends: “We live as neighbours, and in many cases, we are now relations. And yet in this context, we also know that the art of our friendship, the craft of our community-building, and the tone of our intimacy… is constantly under the shadow of these old injustices and the ongoing privileges and the disadvantages that have resonated in our shared lives right through to the present day. After six generations, there are many Taranaki people who understand that none of us can build authentic communities here on the back of the unresolved grief that is still surrounding the stolen Waitara lands.”

For those of us who are Pākehā, or non-Māori, and live outside Waitara and Taranaki, we have our own stories to face up to in our local areas. This is not a job to be left to government. The commemoration of the New Zealand Land Wars is an opportunity for us all to embrace courage.

But with the Waitara Lands Bill currently before parliament, it is also a collective opportunity for us not to turn away, but to turn toward the hard truth. Let us encourage and support our government to do the right thing, and see the stolen lands of Waitara returned.

Carl Chenery is a Pākehā New Zealander of English, Irish and Scottish descent based in Auckland. He is a member of Tāmaki Treaty Workers. If you wish to respond to this piece, please contact us at info@thespinoff.co.nz.

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