New Zealand Labour government cuts off Maori claims to the foreshore

By John Braddock
10 June 2004

Last month the New Zealand Labour government, under intense pressure from business and the media, introduced into parliament legislation designed to cut off claims by the country’s indigenous inhabitants—the Maori—to the foreshore and seabed. The bill passed its first reading with the support of the right-wing populist New Zealand First Party, after two of Labour’s Maori MPs, Nanaia Mahuta and Associate Maori Affairs Minister Tariana Turia, crossed the floor to vote against.

The legislation purports to guarantee public access to the foreshore and seabed by asserting crown ownership over the inter-tidal zone. It specifically prevents the Maori Land Court granting freehold title to Maori tribes that claim customary ownership. Those who can establish continual customary usage dating back to 1840, such as traditional shellfish gathering, will only be able to establish certain usage rights and involvement in “consultation” over coastal management.

The new law stems from a decision by the government to nullify a decision of the Court of Appeal that the Maori Land Court could hear claims relating to the recognition of customary interests. Responding to media-fed alarm that Maori claims would form the basis of establishing legal title, Prime Minister Helen Clark proclaimed the need to guarantee “open access and use” of the foreshore “for all New Zealanders”.

Clark’s position amounts to sheer hypocrisy. Widespread private ownership around the coastline—in the form of coastal farming properties, aquaculture and businesses such as privatised port companies, as well as exclusive resorts and yacht clubs—already prevents public access to about one third of the foreshore. Establishing the seabed and foreshore as crown property earmarks the entire coastline for sale to the highest bidders at some future date, as has been the fate of a vast array of other “crown entities”. In order to get support for the bill, Clark readily agreed to demands by NZ First leader Winston Peters that all references to “public ownership”—which he insisted were “too vague”—be struck out and replaced with “crown ownership”.

The legislation has nothing to do with protecting public ownership. Rather, Labour is moving to accommodate demands from ruling circles that the multi-million dollar compensation payments for Maori land confiscations during the nineteenth century must end. The first step is to shut down this new and unexpected class of possible claims—described by Clark as an “unintended consequence” of previous legislation.

The main proponent of this agenda is Don Brash, a former Reserve bank governor, recently installed as leader of the opposition National Party. Brash seized on the Appeal Court ruling to insist on an end to all forms of “ethnic separatism” and “exclusive rights”, demagogically calling for “one rule for all”. Despite Clark’s continuing accommodation to Brash, the National Party has opposed Labour’s legislation on the grounds that it has not gone far enough in eradicating the concept of customary rights itself.

Brash’s own professional record is bound up with implementing the most extreme dictates of international finance capital. His attacks on so-called “special privileges” for Maori are designed to open the way for a deepening assault on the social position of the working class as a whole. Unsurprisingly, his stand has catapulted him to media stardom. It has also contributed to a significant rise in ratings for the National Party, which just six months ago was way behind Labour.

Labour’s response has been to simply give way. After briefly deriding Brash for playing the “race card”, Clark appointed State Services Minister Trevor Mallard to a new position overseeing race relations. She also established a review of public sector spending to ensure that programs were targeted on the basis of “need” and not “race”.

Resignation threats

The affair is indicative of a decisive shift within official New Zealand politics. For a whole period from the mid-1970s, Labour promoted the politics of “bi-culturalism” as a means of containing the growing radicalisation among Maori and integrating a layer of Maori political and business leaders into the functions of the state. Many of these are now accusing the party of betrayal. Some in the Maori political establishment are even threatening to scrap the alliance established in 1936 between the Ratana church and the Labour party—an alliance that has delivered to Labour all Maori seats, now numbering seven, in every election except 1996, when they were briefly held by NZ First.

The week before the first vote, Turia announced her decision to quit both the Labour Party and parliament, thereby forcing a by-election. Clark promptly announced Labour would not contest, denouncing the by-election as a “sideshow”. Turia, who has been hailed as a hero in Maori political circles for her stand, intends to use it as a vehicle to launch a new Maori political party.

For some time, Mahuta threatened to resign as well. After last-minute consultations with leaders of her tribal organisation Tainui, however, she announced she would remain in order to try and influence the legislation in its passage through the select committee process. But she warned that Labour should not take her future support for granted.

Without Mahuta’s support, the government and its principal ally, the United Future Party, would command only 60 votes in the 120-seat parliament. Clark would be forced to negotiate support from the other minor parties or advise the governor-general that she could not govern. While she appears to have the numbers to pass the recent budget, Clark’s future is on the line. That she has been prepared to turn her back on one of Labour’s core traditional bases of support demonstrates the extent of the government’s commitment to implement the new demands of finance capital.

The politics of “Land Rights”

Over the past several decades, the politics of “land rights” has played a key role in New Zealand politics. It has been central to the efforts of the ruling class to create a privileged layer capable of holding the Maori working class in check and preventing its struggles from unifying with those of the working class as a whole. The clamour to close down Maori claims to the foreshore constitutes a significant shift away from this strategy.

The 1984-90 Labour government triggered the Treaty of Waitangi land settlements just as its pro-market “reform” program introduced mass unemployment, assaults on welfare and radically falling living standards. Maori workers were walled off from their class brothers and sisters on the basis that the settlements program would provide social equality and financial independence. Since 1989, some 15 claims totalling $596 million have been settled on a tribal basis. The most prominent of these were $170 million each for the Ngai Tahu and Waikato tribes, and a further $170 million for the purchase of commercial fishing quota. There are currently 12 claims in progress, with a rate of settlement of one every six months, and more tribes are preparing to enter the claims process.

The present moves are intended to draw a line under this process. But while the government’s shift signals a renewed assault on the social conditions of ordinary Maori, the Maori leadership are preoccupied with defending a program from which they were the chief beneficiaries.

Various spokespeople have denounced it as another land grab of historic proportions, while prominent Auckland Maori academic Margaret Mutu described it as a “declaration of war”. Legal and political representatives claimed Maori had never ceded ownership of the foreshore and seabed, and that the government’s alacrity to use parliament to circumvent the court process denies them fundamental rights of legal due process.

There is no question, however, that the new legislation has been met with hostility among ordinary Maori, among the most impoverished and oppressed sections of the population. In early May, some 15,000 people protested outside parliament following a two-week hikoi (march) by Maori. The hikoi started in the far north and wound its way down the North Island, re-tracing the route of the first Maori land-rights march in 1975.

The Maori leadership consciously sought to evoke the traditions of the 1970s, as a means of casting their own role in a more militant and popular light. But it is precisely these traditions—and the demand for “land rights” itself—that have played such a critical role in dividing the New Zealand working class along ethnic lines.

The Waitangi Treaty

During the early 1970s, New Zealand workers—like their counterparts around the world—embarked on a series of major struggles. Very quickly the conditions emerged for a powerful and unified movement of all workers, fighting for decent living standards, pay and basic democratic rights. In 1974, the 80-year-old Conciliation and Arbitration Act was scrapped in the face of this rising militancy. Soon after widespread protests and strikes broke out in opposition to the jailing of a leading trade unionist over employer attempts to injuct the unions. These were followed by a series of major industrial conflicts at Ocean Beach freezing works (1978), Mangere Bridge (1977-79) and Kinleith paper mill (1978). The country’s first national general strike took place in 1979 when the Muldoon National Government attempted to nullify an 11 percent pay increase won by drivers, declaring it to be “excessive” and “inflationary”.

Against this background, the first land rights hikoi was organised in 1975. It was led by Whina Cooper—later made a “Dame” in the honours system, in recognition for services rendered—an elderly former president of the Maori Women’s Welfare League. Cooper’s involvement in politics stemmed from an earlier association with the land development schemes of Apirana Ngata, the Labour MP for the seat of Eastern Maori from 1905-1943, who organised blocks of Maori land into development projects to make them into viable farms.

The ruling class recognised the value of this program, aimed as it was at turning layers of Maori into property holders and small businessmen, and promoting a Maori leadership with definite capitalist aspirations. In 1975 the Labour Government established the Waitangi Tribunal as a formal, ongoing commission of inquiry to hear grievances against the crown. The Waitangi Tribunal first began hearings two years later, but few land claims were investigated.

By the mid-1980s, as part of a worldwide offensive by the bourgeoisie, the New Zealand ruling class embarked on a major assault on living standards and social conditions, provoking widespread opposition. Recognising the need for a more systematic approach to buying off the Maori leadership and blocking the development of a united class consciousness, the Lange-Douglas Labour government moved to establish the Treaty of Waitangi as the country’s “founding document.” In 1985, the powers of the Waitangi Tribunal were extended to allow investigation of crown actions dating back to 1840. From 1986, the “principles” of the treaty began to be incorporated into various legislative reforms.

Maori workers were led to believe that so-called “treaty” settlements would eventually provide them with better living conditions and financial independence. Twenty years later, while a thin layer of Maori entrepreneurs directly controls some $NZ5 billion in business assets, the vast majority of Maori remain vastly over-represented in all the social statistics to do with poverty, poor health, low educational attainment and rates of imprisonment.

But now New Zealand business—under severe pressure from the world economy—regards any special laws and “rights” as barriers to its profits and international competitiveness. That is why both major political parties—Labour and National—are moving to junk the old “land rights” program, as they prepare a renewed assault on the working class.

The Maori political establishment is more than willing to accommodate, so long as its own special privileges are preserved. Turia, for example, has bluntly asserted she is ready to work with Brash and the National Party to “promote Maori interests”, while co-leader of the new Maori party, Pita Sharples, declared himself a supporter of privatised prisons, hailing Maori involvement in running Auckland Central Remand Prison as responsible for making it “one of the country’s most successful”. Whatever the deals concluded between the Maori leadership and New Zealand’s ruling elite, the assault on the jobs and living standards of the working class will intensify.