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Dr Muriel Newman

Call for Finlayson to be replaced

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The National Party has a problem, thanks to their list MP Christopher Finlayson. He no doubt promised his Caucus colleagues that he could deliver on a bill to replace Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed Act that would satisfy the Maori Party’s desire to address perceived injustices in the Act and in a manner acceptable to National’s voting constituency. He would have persuaded them that with the help of John Key’s assurances that non-Maori have nothing to fear from the changes, a public backlash could be avoided.

What he didn’t count on the grassroots outrage at those changes that are being proposed and the unifying strength of the Coastal Coalition.

As you well know, the Coastal Coalition was formed in late April 2010 in response to the way that consultation over the Review of the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act was being rushed through. It became obvious during the review that while the Attorney General was bending over backwards to involve iwi fully in the consultation process, he was only paying lip service to other stakeholder groups which included recreational and conservation interests, business and development interests, local government interests, as well as the wider public.

The Coalition was initially formed to give a voice to those the Minister chose to ignore. It has grown into a broad-based independent grassroots organisation consisting of tens of thousands of supporters from all over New Zealand – people of all races, from all walks of life, and of all political persuasions. We are diverse but united on one thing: a strong belief that the foreshore and seabed is the birthright and common heritage of all New Zealanders and should remain in Crown ownership.

As New Zealanders equal under the law, public ownership of the foreshore and seabed ensures that the massive wealth from coastal business activities flows into the public purse to help fund hospitals, schools and other services in the national interest. This not only includes proceeds from leases and permits, but also returns from the mining of huge reserves of iron sands, rare earths and a multitude of other priceless minerals that can be found in the foreshore and seabed area.

But more importantly, the foreshore and seabed is part of who we are as New Zealanders. It plays a crucial role in shaping us as a nation. Crown ownership ensures that each and every one of us equally has free and unfettered access to a coastline we all love. Just as past generations of Kiwis have been free to picnic, swim, fish, surf, go boating, or engage in a myriad of coastal recreational activities, so too should that right be available to future generations of New Zealanders.

That’s why Chris Finlayson’s plan to relinquish our public ownership rights to the foreshore and seabed – in favour of a regime of increasing Maori-only ownership and control – is seen by many as grossly offensive. And the fact that John Key, Chris Finlayson and the rest of the National party don’t understand how offensive this is, is an indictment on their understanding of what it means to be New Zealander.

Well, thanks to the Coastal Coalition’s information campaign, Chris Finlayson’s plan to sneak the Bill through before the public wakes up to what’s really going on has been derailed and it is becoming increasingly likely that his Bill will not survive in its current form.

In political debate, ad hominem attacks have always been regarded as the domain of the ‘left’, as they play the man not the ball in an attempt to discredit and marginalise their opponents. That’s why many people have been taken aback by the vitriolic attacks of the Attorney General. Any non-Maori who dares to oppose his replacement for the Foreshore and Seabed Act is subjected to vicious personal attacks – presumably in an attempt to silence them and to prevent others from speaking out. Among those he has insulted for raising concerns about his Bill include Michael Barnett, the Chief Executive of the Chambers of Commerce; Dr Grant Morris, law-lecturer at Victoria University; David Round, lecturer in law at Canterbury University; Dr Hugh Barr, Coastal Coalition spokesman and outdoor recreation advocate – and now, more recently myself and the more than ten thousand supporters of the Coastal Coalition.1

In an astonishing outburst that illustrates how poor his judgement is the Attorney General has spent presumably countless hours trawling through the many hundreds of articles on the New Zealand Centre for Political Research website (see archives page) to find mud to throw at the Coastal Coalition. The best he could do was highlight an article I wrote in 2006 in response to a feature in the Economist Magazine that looked at the early history of world discovery – including New Zealand. The article has absolutely nothing at all to do with the foreshore and seabed.

He then called opponents to his Marine and Coastal Area Bill “clowns” and “paranoids”, claiming that our views are “profoundly sickening” and that he was considering giving up his summer holiday because “I’m not going to be beaten by these clowns”.

For a Minister of the Crown to attempt to intimidate and silence opponents to his Bill, at a time when a submission process that invites comment from members of the public is underway, is extraordinary and totally unacceptable. This latest attack on the tens of thousands of good New Zealanders who support the objective of the Coastal Coalition – to retain the foreshore and seabed in Crown ownership – shows he has lost all semblance of the objectivity that a Minister in charge of a Bill must display. As a member of the House of Representatives, he should welcome public participation in the democratic process; he should not insult those who challenge his opinions as by doing so, he is undermining the integrity of the process. Accordingly, I have written to the Prime Minister to call for his replacement as the Minister responsible for the Bill. The Prime Minister simply cannot allow him to stay in that position when he is in clear breach of the high standards of behaviour set out in the Cabinet Manual:

· 2.50 To protect the integrity of the decision-making process of executive government and to maintain public trust in the Executive, Ministers … must conduct themselves in a manner appropriate to their office.

· 2.53 … at all times, Ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards. Ultimately, Ministers are accountable to the Prime Minister for their behaviour.2

As voters and taxpayers we should be demanding the highest of standards of our Members of Parliament and Ministers of the Crown. If you oppose the Marine and Coastal Area Bill and object to the Attorney General calling you paranoid and a clown, then I urge you to write to the Prime Minister at John.Key@parliament.govt.nz to ask that a replacement Minister be appointed to take charge of the Marine and Coastal Area Bill. If you want to contact Chris Finlayson to let him know what you think of his tactic of calling you names, you can email him at Christopher.Finlayson@parliament.govt.nz. In addition, you should continue to write letters to your local newspaper and call talkback to share your views on the Bill – and the impending confiscation of public property rights – since hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders still do not know that there is anything to worry about.

In a further extraordinary move, the Attorney General then decided to attack the Coastal Coalition’s advertisement, which thanks to your donations has been published in newspapers throughout the country. He described the concerns raised by the Coastal Coalition as “mistruths”, but in his reply he incredibly chose to ignore 20 of the 33 queries we raised in the advertisement. We can only conclude he has no answer that would be palatable to the public. Most significantly he has not refuted our claim that he will have the power to grant customary title through private negotiation, without recourse to the Courts or Parliament – and nor will he consult with the public or other Maori groups that may have an interest in the area. This is a fundamental and radical change to the granting of property rights – giving such executive powers to a Minister that places him (and his successors whoever they may be) above the Courts, is not in the public interest.

A review of some of the more than 4,000 submissions to the Marine and Coastal Area Bill shows that submitters are overwhelmingly opposed to the new law. Maori and non-Maori alike are objecting to it. Furthermore, the oral submissions are reflecting the same widespread opposition, where even supporters of a law change have major reservations about the Bill. Given John Key’s assurance that a new law would not be passed unless there was wide public support, with opposition mounting across the board, it would be untenable for him to progress this Bill into law.

Instead of a Guest Commentary this week, I thought you would be interested in a selection of some of the interesting comments that can be found in the written submissions to the Bill. The full range of submissions that have been published so far can be viewed here.

With the wisdom of hindsight, when the Attorney General announced his review of the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, he should have offered four options:

  • 1. Maori Title, which is what the Maori Party really wants;
  • 2. His fancy new construct – the Marine and Coastal Area Bill – which nobody seems to want;
  • 3. The status quo; or
  • 4. A return to the situation we used to have where the Crown owned the foreshore and seabed under common law, but with Maori who thought they might have customary title able to test their claim in the High Court (not the Maori Land Court). Given that the Court of Appeal was of the view that there was little if any customary title left in New Zealand, reverting back would have been the easiest option to ensure that aggrieved Maori had genuine access to justice, while leaving the New Zealand public secure in their public ownership rights to the foreshore and seabed.

Maybe if Chris Finlayson had properly consulted with all New Zealanders over the future of the foreshore and seabed – instead of just Maori Party supporters and the iwi leaders – he might have been able to better judge the shape of an acceptable legislative ‘solution’. If he had listened to public concerns, he would have realised that confiscating the public’s rights to the foreshore and seabed, which we all regard as an extremely precious national asset, was simply not an option. By taking into account the view of the majority of New Zealanders – instead of only those of his coalition partner – he could have avoided the difficulty he has now brought upon himself as he tries to defend the indefensible.