Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Ihumatao: dangers for us all

Nowhere have I seen a reliable outline of the facts regarding Ihumatao. Our media have not covered themselves in glory with their reporting. So I can't speak with absolute certainty. But having served on the Waitangi Tribunal for a decade, I have some knowledge about the processes.

My understanding is that Pania Newton was one of a minority who couldn't persuade her iwi, Kawarau a Maki, to push for the inclusion of all of the Stonefields land in the settlement the iwi reached with the Crown in 2014. The reason was clear at the time. The land she sought was privately owned, and in 1985 when extending the capacity of the Waitangi Tribunal to hear historical claims, the government made it clear that privately-owned land would not be part of any settlements. After the 2014 Kawerau a Maki agreement between the iwi and the Crown had been legislated for, Fletchers bought the land in question and agreed to provide the unhappy minority within Kawerau a Maki with 48 units for iwi members within the construction they planned on a discrete corner of Stonefields. Pania and her group of dissidents still weren't happy that they had been unable to get private land and began their protest. Fletchers were obliged to halt their plans for building that in any event posed no threat to the Otuataua Stonefields. The Crown, unwisely in my view, inserted itself into what was a dispute over what could be done on privately-owned land. Pania Newton's activities meant that her tribe's 48 units that were to be built at a time of a severe housing shortage would be delayed and probably not eventuate.

Assertions followed to the effect that the land deemed by Pania Newton was so precious it SHOULD all have been included in the settlement because it had been confiscated in 1863 when the Maori owners deserted it and went south to join Waikato in the war against the Crown. But that overlooks the fact that the 2014 settlement was paid in compensation to Kawerau a Maki for their losses including the confiscation. Pania Newton was in effect asking to have the settlement reopened and some now privately-held land to be added, something that was expressly not possible in any Waitangi settlements. In any event, her tribe had signed a "full and final" agreement with the Crown. As that old TV show would have said, she now wanted the money for the settlement AND the bag.

It should be realised by everyone that if the Crown buts in here with something demanded by dissatisfied segments of an iwi who fail to get what they want at the time of negotiations, other Maori minorities will inevitably feel that their "full and final" settlement with the Crown is neither full, nor final. Several have already declared that there would be a "moral" imperative to do so. Grievances will be given a licence to multiply. The government is inviting further trouble for itself, and putting at risk the promise made in 1985 that no privately-owned land would be part of any settlement. The government can't avoid this criticism by purchasing the land and then giving it away. And if the government purchases the Ihumatao land and turns it into a reserve, every Maori who believes he/she has good cause to occupy private land of their fancy will cause troubles in future. The sanctity of private ownership of property will be placed in jeopardy.

By 18 December some outlines of what the government intends have become clearer. The story is even murkier. Having paid Kawerau a Maki $6 million in cash and several bits of valuable property in 2014, the Crown is now paying another $29.9 million because of a minority whose provenance is suspect, and who lost their argument when the case was being negotiated six years ago. This, says Pania Newton, "is the first step to healing the heartache". The newly-elected Maori Party whose two MPs seem to have read little history and to have spent more time in tattoo parlours than getting their heads around the issues, are pronouncing that the government's actions set "an important precedent". What, one wonders do they have in mind? And what will be the price tag on it all? A group of Pania's agitators along with a couple from the Kingitanga, and with the Crown also represented, but outnumbered, will spend up to five years deciding what else needs to be done. Does this look to you like another gravy train where various unspecified people collect attendance fees for doing little?

A weak government with no knowledge of the history of grievances just might soon realise that it faces an avalanche of radical claims that it can't control. Grant Robertson's assertions that no precedents are being set are completely worthless. And if the government builds houses on the land, why wasn't it cheaper to leave that to Fletchers who already had approvals for what they wanted to do? Better, surely, not to have got involved in the first place.