The cruel irony of a Maori land grab to build an expressway

In 1974 the then Labour government planned compulsory takings of land north of Auckland to create coastal land reserves for the public.

Ninety per cent of the coastal land was "European land" at the time and only 10 per cent was Maori land, yet 90 per cent of the land designated for compulsory acquisition was from the small remnant of Ngati Wai ancestral lands.

A young lawyer standing for the National Party in Northern Maori led the successful opposition to these proposals and his campaign helped to inspire the Maori Land March led by Dame Whina Cooper in 1975. Winston Peters was right to lead those protests.

Claims about the use of Public Works Acts, and other compulsory takings of Maori land for public purposes, have featured in many Waitangi Tribunal hearings since 1985 when the tribunal was empowered to inquire into historical claims.

Does the cession of kawanatanga/governance authority include the power to set aside the guarantee of tino rangatiratanga over land by permitting Maori land to be alienated to the Crown without the consent of its right-holders? These issues were considered in many early Tribunal reports. Similar issues have been dealt with in reports on almost all the district-wide inquiries held more recently, though the recommendations in more recent reports have been less specific - encouraging Maori to negotiate Treaty settlements with the Office of Treaty Settlements.

The fact that these issues have been the subject of findings and recommendations in so many reports is indicative of just how important public works takings are for Maori claimants.

The historical record is plain. Given a number of options for public works takings, the record of central and local governments for many, many decades was to prefer routes including Maori land. Compensation payments could thus be minimised and, indeed, for a long time there was no compensation payable at all.

Takings for roads through Maori land, but not through "European land" - now "general land", was deemed to be in itself a direct "benefit" to Maori so that there was no reason to compensate the owners of the taken land.

Analysis of such grievances can be found in Professor Alan Ward's work for the Waitangi Tribunal's Rangahaua Whanui National Overview published in 1997. No-one in government today should be at all surprised to learn that people like Patricia Grace are extremely inflexible in opposing Public Works takings of fragments of Maori land for the Wellington Northern Corridor expressway.

And then there is the poignant fact that Grace's land is a tiny remnant of land once held under the mana of Wiremu [Wi] Parata Te Kakakura.

That ancestor's important contributions to the Colony of New Zealand, and especially to the area of Waikanae, are not as well- known as they should be.

His Christian names Wiremu Parata [Williams brother] honour Bishop William Williams, and acknowledge his many contributions as a pioneer of the faith and a munificent benefactor of the church may be seen in a stained glass window in St Luke's, Waikanae.

He was one of the earliest Maori members of Parliament and, further than that, he and Wi Katene were the first Maori to serve as members of the government's Executive Council in the 1870s. He always sought lawful means of protecting his people's dwindling land resources and in his dwelling at Parihaka in Taranaki many meetings were held to devise strategies for the retention of Maori land.

He is well-known as the plaintiff who lost a case over Whitireia block in 1877 when Justice Richmond and Chief Justice Prendergast declared the Treaty of Waitangi to be "a simple nullity". He continued to seek (but not obtain) justice for his people over that block right up to giving evidence shortly before his death in 1906 to a Royal Commission.

Yet Wi Parata was also generous in making land available for developments that he believed would benefit all the peoples of Waikanae - a town initially named after him as Parata Township.

Of particular significance to current debates about transport corridors is the history of the Wellington to Manawatu railway.

During the deep economic depression in the 1880s the government was unable to build the railway it had intended to construct from Thorndon to Longburn.

Construction ceased at Wadestown and the task of building and running the railway became that of a private enterprise - the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company - which ran the line from 1881 to 1908.

Backed by the Wellington Chamber of Commerce, this venture was made possible by the investment not only of Wellington businessmen but also by issuing a substantial package of shares in the company to Maori land owners who exchanged land along the proposed route for shares in the company. Thus Maori such as Wiremu Parata Te Kakakura and their iwi have contributed much in the past to transport corridors, and yet have been left in the 21st century with precious fragments only of their ancestral lands in the region.

One of those precious fragments is the land for which Patricia Grace is the kaitiaki. If an expressway really is to be built - though it may or may not be the most suitable transport option - surely there is a better pathway (he arapai) that need not involve the compulsory acquisition of that land.

David Williams is an Auckland University law professor and currently a visiting research associate at Oxford University.

The Dominion Post