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Dr Muriel Newman

Maori Occupation of Taipa: an insider’s view

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Opinion Piece by Taipa Resident (who has asked to remain anonymous)

Last weekend was glorious at Taipa Point and looking out over the estuary it would have been difficult to find a more tranquil or beautiful setting in ‘God’s Own’. The beach had a colourful sheen under clear skies and the sea was blue green. The reserve was buzzing as our community and visitors alike enjoyed the best of what New Zealand has.

The boat ramp was busy – the sailing boats from the sailing club on the reserve were active, some racing and others with the training group teaching children the sail. The picnic tables were full of revellers and the beach at the river mouth was packed with fishermen casting for kahawai.

This picture of pure paradise was completed by the sound of children’s laughter from the jetty used as a diving board. It was a special day as people appeared to be celebrating being free again to use the public reserve and the beaches, after the eviction of the Maori occupation from the Point.

What a contrast to the period from the 14th to the 30th of October. This was the time of the first occupation of the public reserve. It was a sad, bleak and desolate place. It could also be dangerous to visit after the Popata brothers – the puppets of Hone Harawera and Margaret Mutu – had decided that in the name of Ngati Kahu, the land was theirs.

For 7 years I had walked the Point. On the afternoon of the 14th October I found Maori building a shanty shack against the side of the Taipa Sailing Club on the reserve. When I entered to find out what was happening I was confronted by an aggressive fellow who asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was walking the point as I have done for years and was told that it was now Maori land and I was not welcome.

The next day I walked past the shanty to be confronted again by another Maori holding a spear and his very aggressive buddy cutting fire wood with a chain saw. I went through the same procedure but this time was told that I had just walked into their house without asking permission. They said they would not do that to me and I should not do that to them. I was then asked to get off Maori land. These standoffs continued for a couple of weeks as they blocked the boat ramp and were generally nasty to anybody visiting the area who did not adhere to their demands.

They must have been delighted that the occupation had ruined the Labour Day Weekend and revelled in the fact that it had cost the Taipa Bay Resort a huge amount of revenue in cancelled bookings. The whole business community had been affected by it through the media coverage. The tourists and visitors who are the life blood of the Far North did not come – or if they did, they surely never stayed long. This saw a swell of anger in the community and when the Mayor appealed for support from the locals to visit the occupation ground, over 200 turned out. This took the Popatas by surprise as they experienced first hand the growing distrust and the animosity that was festering. But unfortunately it brought no resolution.

The sad affair of their occupation lasted until they got inside information that the council was intending to serve trespass notices. So on the 30th October they skulked out just like they had skulked in – but this time in the early hours of the morning. I guess that was an attempt to save face. When asked by the local press why they had left, they answered that they knew what was coming and did not want to hang around to be arrested.

Once they were gone, the relief was tangible within the community as everyone was again free to enjoy the land and the beaches. You could see and feel the delight of the locals and visitors, but we all knew that their activism would ensure a return. But for the moment we all made the best of our freedom.

Sure enough, on the 5th November they returned. They had obviously met their mentors and advisers within the Mutu and Harawera camps and had discussed a PR strategy with the media over how they were going to control the second occupation. Over the next few weeks we saw more ‘skilful extensions’ built without consent. This time the end of Taipa Point was fenced by a tea tree stockade.

Sovereignty flags a plenty and nasty dogs chained at intervals around the boundary, the final insult was to fly the New Zealand flag upside down. The boat ramp was blocked again for few days with very few boats launched. After a couple of days it was decided that they would man a gate at the ramp formed by 44 gallon fire drums. If you wanted to launch a boat you were stopped, given a lesson on Maoridom and then had to ask permission to enter ‘their’ land. As you can imagine very few locals accepted this invitation, instead driving to Mill Bay in the Mangonui Harbour to get out to sea. During this period a few of us were assaulted including a young woman who was pushed and bullied and had her mobile phone confiscated when she tried to phone her family for help.

Whilst this was happening fewer and fewer people visited the area until they were left, pretty much, with their own private beach reserve and boat ramp. Media coverage is what the occupation now needed and they came in their droves with TV ONE coverage being nothing short of Maori propaganda. Cleverly edited interviews with local people almost portrayed support for the cause, which was certainly not the case. Occupiers were depicted as peace loving citizens running a drug and alcohol free occupation of public land. Drug and alcohol free it may have been but they were far from peaceful or friendly and did a great job – with the help of the media – to fool the masses.

During the first occupation the council, for reasons known only to them, were reluctant to serve a trespass notice. However, this time around they were on to it and the order was smartly issued and served. This gave Mr Popata the opportunity to rip up the trespass order for their eviction in front of the TV cameras to show his utter contempt for the law. His arrest, along with 9 others, made the news that night. This minority were released without conviction and hence were free to plan the next invasion of the land.

This time they used local radio and the newspapers to advertise the fact that they would be returning to Taipa on Tuesday 16th November after a motorised hikoi from Kaitaia. The business community and local residents braced themselves and a group businesses and local residence formed the Peoples’ Picnic Protest group to welcome them back on the day. About 40 of us gathered and thoroughly enjoyed a picnic in the park for a few hours to wait for their arrival. With the blaring of car horns waving Maori flags and shouts of ‘we are back’ the cars pulled onto to private land next to the public reserve.

Along with the cars came a truck full of building material and at 11pm that night they were still out there building a shack and digging in for the duration. We woke up to see the results of their labours, a shanty shack under a tree and 7 protest flags, their Foreshore and Seabed sign and New Zealand’s National Flag prominently placed upside down as a final insult. Occupying private land is strategically a good move on their part because they know how long it will take a private owner to get them trespassed. It will give them the time they need to disrupt our community for their own misguided beliefs.

Mr Popata has been on radio telling listeners that he does not care about the damage he is doing to the community or to a local business that might have to make staff redundant in this area of high unemployment. He has made statements that as far as he is concerned the people living in the area are just rich people and foreigners who have exploited the land and Maori.

We are now waiting to see what the owner of the land intends to do, and the council for that matter, considering a building that has been erected without consent. But while we wait, Mr Popata is stopping tourist buses and demanding to be let onboard to tell the Swedes, the Danes, the Germans and all of the other tourists about his plight. These buses call into the Taipa Bay Resort every day on their way to Cape Reinga and bring employment to three locals. When the owner called the Police she was told that there was nothing they could do about it.

Because of Mr Popata’s actions, other companies have cancelled the stop and another company refused to stop in Taipa at all. That cost the motel operator is another $600 dollars, but that is nothing to what it has cost her in cancelled booking over the last few weeks. The debacle over Labour Day weekend saw her lose $13,000 dollars in bookings and $17,000 dollars of Christmas bookings have already been cancelled to date.

While this is going on around me – and I see the destruction that these actions are causing and the bad blood that is being created – I think of the Hon Mr Chris Finlayson speaking at a meeting in the very same Taipa Resort just after the first occupation started. He was there to convince National Party faithful and local residence that his new Bill the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill should be supported through the House.

He tried to tell us that the occupations that were happening in real time as he was speaking, no more than 300 meters from where he stood, could never happen. There would always be free and fair access to beaches and marine reserves and anybody saying anything else was spreading myths and lies. Well, if he thinks that the law will protect us from these people I would like to quote my old Maori friend born north of these parts who says, ‘you white men make the laws and these people will just continue to break them’. And there’s the problem; they are so arrogant and that there is no law as far as they are concerned so this Bill will bring nothing new.

Oh, and another thought is the line from an Eagles song, that goes something like, ‘Call some place paradise, and kiss it goodbye’.