Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

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Look Out for Illegal Maori Claims


Under this government New Zealand seems to be awash with new Maori claims for this or that advantage, be it monetary, new land claims, or electoral advantage. We are familiar with the recent efforts to undermine the basic principle of one-person-one vote with the bill introduced by a Labour MP that would give Rotorua Maori voters greater voting strength than everyone else in the city. That bill looks to be dead in the water because the Attorney-General produced an opinion that its proposal was unconstitutional and unfair. Other claims - and there are scores of them circulating - won't be quite so easy to dismiss.

As a former Minister of Local Government, it has come to my attention that at least one large local authority is being pestered by its local Iwi which is claiming a Treaty right to become involved in all property consents in its region over relatively trivial issues like permissions to install domestic swimming pools or other consents that might affect the surface of privately-owned pieces of land. Claiming to have "mana whenua status" over the land, they are demanding to be consulted by the local authority, and of course to be paid for their input. One tribal leader has made elaborate and expensive demands for draining and improving creeks within the local authority area at a cost to the ratepayer. The argument is that since some Maori land in the area was confiscated in the 1860s they are entitled to redress and should be consulted on all matters of this kind. In fact, the Iwi's Raupatu (confiscation) claims were heard by the Waitangi Tribunal and were the subject of a very substantial payout following the Iwi's signing of a "full and final" settlement. The settlement was then put into legislation. Tribal leaders now state that that settlement was "inadequate"; the tribe wants more, this time from the local authority which played no part in the confiscation. Council officers have received emails threatening street protests and other unpleasantness if the new Maori demands aren't met. This, of course, is blackmail.

My understanding is that around New Zealand there have been, particularly under Jacinda Ardern's government, many examples of this kind of stand-over tactic by local Maori. The government daily turns a blind eye. To maintain a quiet life, some councils have agreed to such Iwi demands in part or in full. Lots of councils have quietly put local Maori on to pay rolls as liaison officials with their Iwi. But the councils should be very cautious what they agree to. They are the custodians of ratepayers' money, and it ought to be spent only when there is a clear legal purpose and proper procedures have been followed. Paying further reparations for something the Crown has already settled on a "full and final" basis is clearly wrong. Demands for ratepayer cash for expenditure on projects that haven't been approved by the appropriate council committee and which are based on nothing more than unsupported assertions about "tikanga", "sacred" sites, or superstition are unacceptable. I'm told that in no cases have the applicants provided evidence of tribal discussions or decisions on the specific claims being advanced. Nor is it clear how these stand-over Maori were selected, let alone elected, to interface with the councils. They often seem to be no more than random individuals' demands.

While Jacinda Ardern is legally in control of her ministry, these days it seems really to be being driven by Maori activists like Nanaia Mahuta, that out-of-control Minister of Maori Affairs, Willie Jackson, and the ineffectual Kelvin Davis. The rest of the cabinet tags along for the ride. As Labour slides in the polls the ministry has decided to go for broke before the next election when the great electoral reaper intends to call them back to Opposition. Far from moderating their demands as one might expect, they are stepping them up. Both Mahuta and Jackson are near the end of their political lives and it seems they won't turn a hair if any council impropriety takes place, so long as their mates are the beneficiaries. And ratepayers whose money they seek to commandeer are expected to fork out.

Many of these demands are for councils to act illegally. "Full and final" settlements mean just that. In the 1980s voters agreed to the Waitangi Tribunal settlement process which has seen hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the claims process and the Tribunal's workings, plus several billions by way of settlement cash and returned property. It was agreed to because the settlements were to be "full and final". The smartest iwi, Ngai Tahu, understood this. It is now a billion-dollar enterprise employing Maori in tourism and educating its rangatahi. Others have been less careful with their settlement money, while Ngapuhi, traditionally the most disputatious of all the tribes, has yet to settle with the Crown. But, it is not the role of local government's ratepayers to make up for failures in Maori leadership or their stewardship with settlement money. If Jacinda Ardern and Nanaia Mahuta led a responsible government they would be telling Maori leaders to follow the law, observe agreements they signed up to, and stop blackmailing council officers and councillors. In the meantime, everyone needs to be very careful about agreeing to preposterous, unsubstantiated claims.