'Ugly undertones' in tribunal hearing

20:58, Jul 12 2012

The recent Waitangi Tribunal hearing has a good chance of becoming another messy political blow-up with ugly undertones of cultural conflict and misunderstandings.

The whole thing had a rocky start with the New Zealand Maori Council lodging a claim with the Tribunal, on behalf of all Maori, about the Treaty implications of the sale of state-owned assets and consideration of the Maori interest in fresh water and geothermal resources.

A group of iwi leaders initially opposed the application for urgency saying they would rather see the issue addressed via direct dialogue with Crown also suggesting the Maori Council did not speak for all Maori.

The Waitangi Tribunal agreed to hear the claim under urgency but it is clear the government and iwi leaders have a different strategy in mind.

The iwi leaders have been in regular discussions with senior MPs about the implications of the mixed ownership model and they have also been having non- binding dialogue about the issue of freshwater rights and responsibilities.

The government has been pretty unambiguous about the ownership question. They do not believe that anyone owns water and that is consistent with a long-established western world view.


To be fair, Maori have argued a very similar position when it comes to water. In a world in which traditional beliefs are underpinned by the idea that the gods, ancestors and nature are all interlinked as one entity the idea of ownership doesn't really have a place. But equally when ownership is such a powerful concept in terms of managing or having control over something like a natural resource then it becomes the proxy for something such as mana or rangatiratanga.

The New Zealand Maori Council was once a formidable opponent for the Crown and they led some of the most critical Waitangi Tribunal claims during the 1980s and they did so on behalf of all Maori. But the Maori world has moved on and modern iwi corporate have swelled in influence and they now dominate the Maori political landscape. Claims on behalf of all Maori have also proved problematic when it comes time to settle as the negotiated outcomes are meant to provide redress for, or benefits to, an entire ethnic group, furthermore it is unclear who is actually speaking on behalf of whom.

The New Zealand Maori Council would struggle to prove they speak on behalf of me and my rights or interests whereas Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu would have a strong argument defending their mandate to talk on my customary interests in water.

The iwi leaders forum is made up of a collection of people who represent modern iwi entities who generally have solid mandates to speak on behalf of tribal members.

Prime Minister John Key has made the seemingly provocative statement that the government is not bound by the findings of the Waitangi Tribunal; he doesn't have to pay any regard to what they say.

This has caused a fair bit of angst and some serious backlash from different quarters including their Maori Party coalition partners.

Key doesn't tend to make many random, unguarded comments, so I suspect there was some thought behind the statement and, although I can understand why it might annoy a few people, what he says is absolutely correct. They do not have to take on board the tribunal's findings or recommendations.

The government has had their own strategy for dealing with these issues and, on the surface, they have played with a pretty open book. They have deliberately fostered their relationship with the mandated iwi leaders having met with them regularly to discuss many matters of importance. The forum itself is not mandated to make a decision and the authority to commit any particular iwi lies within the iwi's own decision processes.

Matters discussed have included fresh water and the mixed ownership model and they have been pretty in depth. Not negotiating over the outcome but genuine exploration of the implications of the issues and how they may impact on both parties.

The government may genuinely believe they have had the right conversation with the right people and a group with seemingly less influence or political relevance can afford to be given the brush-off.

Settled iwi will be casting their eyes over the assets up for sale with more of an eye of due diligence than Treaty justice. Similarly many who have had the experience of owning natural resources as part of a settlement will understand that, in many cases, ownership comes with more than a one-off cost - the real cost of ownership goes on and on.

There are now new ideas on the table that avoid the question of ownership altogether. I suspect the government and iwi leaders intend to stick to their original strategy which means this will play out much differently to the way foreshore and seabed did.

The Press