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Dr Bryce Edwards

Ihumātao reflects the Zeitgeist of 2019

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The extraordinary Māori land protest at Ihumātao in Auckland is symbolic of our time. It is unlikely to have occurred, say, five years ago. It perfectly reflects heightened concerns and increased radicalism over racism, economic inequality, and the history of colonialism in New Zealand. This meant that when the police moved in last week to evict a long-running protest about the confiscation of Māori land, it suddenly ignited those values that have been brewing in many about injustice and a need to take a stand.

Today’s Otago Daily Times editorial argues the protest has been snowballing due to rising radicalism in society: “The emotional pull is compelling. Those with leftish and anti-establishment sentiments join in enthusiastically. The evils of colonialism, capitalism and racism are laid bare” – see: The Ihumatao cause celebre

Like much of the radicalism – leftwing, rightwing, or otherwise – we’re seeing around the world, the editorial points out that the movement at Ihumātao doesn’t fit into a traditional box. This is because it involves complex issues, difficult history, unusual alliances, and some big potential ramifications for race relations in this country. 

There have been a number of useful attempts to explain the complexities of the Ihumātao clash. The best of these were actually published some time ago – see Leonie Hayden’s National Geographic feature article from 2017: When Worlds Collide and Geoff Chapple’s article for the Listener from 2016: Ihumātao and the Ōtuataua Stonefields: A very special area

Today on RNZ, Alex Ashton and Sharon Brett-Kelly detail some of the background issues and explain how local iwi and hapu are split on the issue of Fletcher Building constructing houses on the land – see: Ihumātao explained

This piece lays out a “tale of skulduggery” in which Māori land was unjustly confiscated in 1863, leading to the Ihumātao farmland remaining in private hands ever since – first with the Wallace family, and today with Fletchers. And it’s now part of the Auckland City Council’s recognised Special Housing Area, meaning that a development is set to proceed. 

As Ashton and Brett-Kelly’s piece explains, Fletchers has worked with local Māori (mana whenua) who have been regarded as having a mandate to negotiate. The local iwi, Te Kawerau a Maki, “accepted the inevitability of the Fletchers development and struck a deal with the corporation that negotiator Te Warena Taua describes as ‘better than anything we have ever achieved from Housing New Zealand or the Crown’. Eight hectares, or 25 percent of the land, will be handed back as a buffer against Otuataua, views of the maunga protected which has meant scaling back the height of some homes, and some of the homes placed into a shared equity scheme with the iwi. It’s unusually generous. Fletchers isn’t putting up a spokesperson during this protest but would it would be unfair to paint the corporation as the villain.”

However, not everyone agrees that the iwi, and its leadership, are the only mana whenua who should be discussing or deciding what happens to the land. Other claimants to the role have now become involved in asserting their rights, including some from within Te Kawerau a Maki. You can also listen to today’s 22-minute RNZ podcast: Ihumātao explained podcast

To read the perspective of the local iwi who favour the Fletchers development, see Pita Turei’s opinion piece: Leave Ihumātao land decisions to iwi. In this he outlines the history of the land, and how local iwi leaders have worked to get Fletchers to give concessions in the development.

Turei, who’s been involved in activism for decades including the Land March and occupation of Bastion Point, says he understands the desire to protest, but argues that the protestors have got it wrong, and are unnecessarily splitting the unity of Māori. He also challenges the protestors to consider what they are really achieving, which he argues would be worse for local Māori.

The protestors believe that the deal struck between the Māori leaders and Fletchers isn’t sufficient, and the return of the land is necessary. A group called Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) has been at the forefront of the whole campaign – see Matthew Rosenberg’s Ihumātao eviction protest: An occupation 150 years in the making

In this he profiles SOUL’s main spokesperson, Pania Newton, who says: “We will remain here until the bulldozers come. I’ve already planned to sacrifice my life for this campaign… I’m willing to die for it. It’s so important to my identity and to the history of our nation and my nieces and nephews.”

A lot of media coverage has emphasised the generational clash involved, as the protests have been centred on younger people. And as an illustration of this divide, although Pania Newton is leading the protests, it’s her uncle, Te Warena Taua, who is the chairperson of the Makaurau Marae Trust and executive chairperson of Te Kawerau Iwi Tribal Authority, and has fronted much of the defence of the arrangement with Fletchers – see Kendall Hutt’s Ihumātao eviction: Generations of Māori divided in dispute

Another way to look at the divide is to view the traditional iwi leadership as having been incorporated into the business establishment, which is what socialist intellectual Alex Birchall argues in his blog post, Ihumātao: The class conflict in Māori politics opens up. He says that the dispute is not simply between protesting Māori versus Fletchers and the police, but also between the local Māori Establishment versus disaffected Māori.

Similarly, John Moore has argued that this new protest represents a growing disillusionment with the Treaty process: “What Ihumātao points to in a deeper political sense is that deep dissatisfaction with how the whole treaty process has played out. With billions of dollars of land, resources and money transferred to certain Māori iwi, we have seen the enrichment and empowerment of certain Māori leaders, while we also have the reality of general poverty within te ao Māori. Most Māori don’t seem to of benefited particularly from the treaty process. So, in a sense this occupation is a cry and rallying point for those Māori who feel they haven’t gained form the enrichment and empowerment of official iwi leaders” – see: Ihumātao – a rallying cry for disaffected Māori

Mounting pressure on politicians to fix the problem

The protestors at Ihumātao have called on the Government to intervene, and they’ve been supported by coalition partner the Green Party, who have formally written to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to request action. So far, the Government’s response has been to try as hard as possible to keep out of the issue. 

Ardern has indicated her preference for the status quo: “Ultimately we are falling on the side of the local iwi and their position… They are not the ones leading the protest here and so if we come in over the top, it really would be undermining the local iwi in this case.”

On Friday, however, the Prime Minister gave an assurance that construction on the Ihumātao development wouldn’t proceed in the meantime while an attempt was made at finding a resolution. 

While this has been appreciated by many of the protesters, it doesn’t get the Government off the hook. Many protestors won’t be satisfied until the Government arranges to buy the land off Fletchers to be made into a public reserve, which may or may not include housing as well.

Critics have been scathing about the Government’s attempts to sit on the fence on the issue. Morgan Godfery has argued that: Ihumātao is Jacinda Ardern’s foreshore and seabed moment. And she’s failing

Writing prior to the PM’s Friday intervention, Godfery questioned the authenticity of Ardern’s commitment to biculturalism: “It’s an intolerable position, especially from a Prime Minister who’ll wrap herself in Māori iconography for the international press. Do you take your kahu huruhuru off when land at Auckland Airport? When the Governor-General said in the Speech from the Throne that your government will work to ‘honour the original treaty promise’ did you have your fingers crossed?”

The PM is now overseas, and is to some extent able to avoid the ongoing debate. But it’s a sign of just how fraught the issue is for her that she is making some extraordinary attempts to prevent being questioned over it. Anna Bracewell-Worrall reported last night: “Jacinda Ardern has personally tried to prevent media from asking about the Ihumātao dispute while on a charm offensive in the Pacific. Her staff threatened journalists with restricted access to the PM if they did, forcing her Beehive team to intervene from Wellington. After crisis calls from the Capital, media were allowed a second shot” – see: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tried to prevent media asking about Ihumātao

It looks as if the Government is still very disinclined to step into the issue in a more radical way, such as buying the land off Fletchers. Today on the AM Show, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters spoke out strongly against the protestors and in favour of the iwi who had negotiated with Fletchers, saying “Let’s not have some of the statements by, in particular, people who don’t belong there, who have not kept the land warm all these centuries, who are not in authority or do not have the mana to speak on behalf of them, let’s not have this sort of media circus” – see: Ihumātao protest: Winston Peters critical of ‘imposters’ protesting

According to the above article, Peters “said in the ‘Māori world’, if people turn up to protest on land they haven’t personally safeguarded or are connected to, they are regarded as strangers and shouldn’t be making statements on the land.”

This follows on from Labour MP Peeni Henare going on TV on Saturday saying “that every Treaty settlement ever completed could be undermined if the Government purchased the Ihumātao land for use as a public heritage space.”

For more arguments on why a special deal on Ihumātao would be a problem for other iwi, see Ben Thomas’ Here’s why the Government can’t return Ihumātao to Iwi

Not everyone agrees with this, however. Today, former indigenous studies academic at the University of Auckland, John McCaffery has argued that there is a misunderstanding in terms of Treaty settlements at Ihumātao: “the Government is claiming that issues at Ihumātao cannot be further discussed, litigated or reopened because of the precedent it would create. This is not historically supported by evidence held by the Crown. The fact is, there has not been any such Waitangi settlement of the Wai 8 1986 Manukau area claim, so attempts now to find a just solution are not constrained by a previous full and final Treaty settlement over this land” – see: Finding a solution to the tragedy of Ihumātao (paywalled). 

McCaffery also challenges the mana whenua status that the Government says the iwi has: “According to the written decisions, Te Kawerau a Maki was never mandated by the Crown to have prime tangata whenua or Government’s mandated mana whenua status at Ihumātao, and Ihumātao is not within their agreed tribal mandated boundaries in their settlement either.”

There’s obviously also the potential for this to blow up as a larger political issue. And Chris Trotter writes about this today – see: Ihumātao watched by unfriendly eyes. He looks at whether the land occupation could spark a conservative backlash, and then a deeper clash that impacts significantly on the Treaty settlements process, Labour’s hold on the Māori seats, and ultimately creating something of an “iwi/Kiwi”-style culture war that raises the stark question of whether the nation proceeds towards becoming “The Bi-Cultural Republic of Aotearoa”.

Finally, what does the controversy say about how this country does its urban planning? Business journalist Rob Stock investigated by going along to a Fletchers annual general meeting, and then visiting the site of the housing development. He was less than impressed with the company. He concludes that not only is Ihumātao a “remarkable place, and is something quite unique in a city that has a tendency to bulldoze its history”, but also that “The truth is Fletcher is building at Ihumātao not because it is a good idea, but because it is convenient” – see: The real reason Fletchers is building at Ihumātao .