What to do about that foreshore and seabed?

Peter Dunne looks at the prospects for a less fevered and Winston-less revisiting of the foreshore and seabed for all New Zealanders.

When the Court of Appeal ruled in 2003 that Maori had a right to take a case to the Maori Land Court over ownership of the foreshore and seabed, it, like the rest of New Zealand, could hardly have imagined the controversy it was unleashing.

While in retrospect it might have been better for the case to proceed, the previous Labour-led government understandably felt that decisive action was needed to make it clear that the foreshore and seabed remained the preserve of all New Zealanders, and that no form of exclusive ownership would be contemplated.

Hence, the start of the rocky journey that led to the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, giving rise to the formation of the Maori Party along the way and the subsequent switch of sufficient Maori political support from Labour to put the Maori Party in a position in which it could credibly demand repeal of the legislation as part of a confidence and supply agreement with the National Party in 2008.

There were other alarms along the way. Originally, Labour was supportive of UnitedFuture's proposed solution that the old concept of public domain, whereby access to the foreshore and seabed would be regarded as the inalienable and indivisible right of Maori and Pakeha alike, was the favoured approach.

However, defections within Labour at the time meant the government did not have the numbers to pass such legislation, so had to turn to NZ First for support. Its jingoistic price was that any reference to public domain be dropped, and the consequence was the much criticised 2004 legislation that Labour and NZ First pushed through Parliament, against the opposition of every other party at the time, UnitedFuture included. Today, NZ First is no longer in Parliament, and the matter is back on the table.

The clock cannot be turned back to 2003, so a durable political solution that respects the interests of all is required.

For Maori, the issues of preserving their traditional relationship with the foreshore and seabed are as strong as ever. So too, is the concern of other New Zealanders that their assumed traditional rights of access to the beach carry on as they always have done.

It is in this context that the notion of public domain or a suitable New Zealand variation of it, is worth reconsidering.

We have all learnt a lot in the past few years. Maori are not about to take over the beaches, nor were they ever seeking to do so. As those few places blessed with a decent summer this year have shown, public access to the country's foreshore and seabed remains as unimpeded as it has always been.

We are all showing the innate New Zealand ability to get along and let the other person do their thing.

When Parliament looks afresh at the issue, as it will this year, it will be seeking to give legislative certainty to this balance. The concept of public domain may yet hold the key to resolving the controversy unleashed in 2003.

Peter Dunne is the leader of UnitedFuture.