Few know much about a shadowy and powerful group of tribal elite that have become a driving force behind the acquisition of public assets. While they first argued for Treaty settlements to put right historic wrongs, they are now successfully claiming assets as an indigenous right. Most people don’t realise how deeply this group has penetrated the Maori and National parties.
This week’s NZCPR Guest commentator, Auckland University Associate Professor Elizabeth Rata, has written extensively about the dangers to New Zealand’s liberal democratic system of an iwi indigenous rights strategy. She believes it will threaten the very preservation of our ‘public commons’ such as our coastline, our National Parks, our water and air, as the iwi elite seek to privatise these public assets. In a speech People Power or Ethnic Elites? given to the Anatomy of Power Conference at Auckland University in 2005, she explained:
“In the last five years there has been a shift in the strategies used by iwi in their quest for property rights and constitutional recognition. The shift is from a Treaty of Waitangi justification to a more comprehensive indigenous group rights argument. The group rights argument is used to claim customary rights, and in an extension, to claim that those customary rights are property rights guaranteed under English Common Law.
“Professor Matthew Palmer has expressed this approach succinctly: ‘Most would say individual rights come first, but under our law, even if the treaty was extinguished, Maori rights do hold sway. Aboriginal title of customary rights exist in law separate from the Treaty – arising from a common law doctrine inherited from England and applied in Canada, United States and Australia. ‘It is a recognition by the English legal system that the people who were here first gained an interest in property by virtue of that fact’.
“Today I will make a counter-argument in order to show that there are problems with the concept of historical continuity that underpins the iwi approach. This concept may seem of remote academic interest but I want to show today how its interpretation is crucial. If the iwi approach were to be successful, the consequences for New Zealand are serious. The property rights argument will privatise large public socio-economic assets into the hands of iwi corporations. This will create a permanent gap between a small iwi elite with aristocratic pretensions on the one hand and the majority of New Zealanders of all ethnicities on the other. The larger group rights argument for the inclusion of iwi into the nation’s constitutional arrangements will undermine the integrity of the New Zealand nation.”
What Elizabeth warned about in 2005 is occurring today. The Marine and Coastal Area Bill will privatise to iwi corporations the public commons that makes up the entire coastal area of New Zealand. The government has never sought an open mandate from the public for this course of action. It is instead the result of a cosy deal between powerful iwi interests – with an insatiable appetite for public resources – and a National Party that is so desperate to stay in power that it is prepared to sacrifice public ownership of the coast.
To pursue their goal, the National Party has reinterpreted a 2003 Court of Appeal ruling, that indicated that some rare, remote and hard to prove pockets of customary title to the foreshore and seabed might still exist in New Zealand, as justification for the repeal of public ownership of the entire coastline.
To make sure elite iwi will succeed with their claims National has reversed the burden of proof: iwi will not have to prove customary title exits, the Crown will have to prove that it does not!
As if that is not enough, National has ruled out the need for iwi to have to prove their ‘claims’ in a court of law, instead allowing deals to transfer millions if not billions of dollars worth of public assets to private corporations through secret negotiations with a friendly Minister. In addition, they have significantly lowered the threshold tests to ensure that vast tracts of public coastline will be transferred into their private hands.
Political commentator Matthew Hooton has described the relationship of the iwi leaders with the government as follows: “The Groups inter relationships with iwi, the Maori Party and the Government are murky. The Group does not claim to speak for all Maori, but behaves as if it does”.
This elite and influential group arose as a result of the Sealords Deal, where 57 tribal groups were mandated to receive and manage the settlement proceeds. As Maori lawyer Annette Sykes, notes, the leaders of these organisations had mandates from their constituents only on fisheries matters, not on the wider issues confronting Maoridom.1 However, over the years this self-selected group of iwi authority chairmen have sidelined traditional methods to retain control and power over their growing asset base.
According to their website, key members of the elite clique that make up the Iwi Chairs Forum, are Mark Solomon from Ngai Tahu, Tukoriorangi Morgan of Te Arataura, Sonny Tau of Ngapuhi, Prof Margaret Mutu of Ngati Kahu, Toko Renata of the Hauraki Maori Trust Board, Ngahiwi Tomoana of Ngati Kahungunu, and Apirana Mahuika of Ngati Porou.
Their close association with the government has resulted considerable personal benefit for Tuku Morgan at least, who was paid $141,000 in director’s fees as well as a $100,000 success fee for completing Tainui’s Waikato River settlement. In addition, he has been paid as a Crown facilitator to help move other iwi through the settlement process. Between November 2008 and March 1, the Office of Treaty Settlements paid him $171,000.2
Collectively, Maori corporations are understood to be worth as much as $25 billion – almost half of the value of the New Zealand stock exchange. This is the wealth that has originated from the privatisation of public assets given to them by successive government. But now they want more.
With their insatiable appetite for wealth and power, they now have the mineral rich foreshore and seabed firmly in their sights. Far from a benign guardianship role, their interest lies in generating vast commercial returns from the mining of iron sands, from clipping the ticket on oil and gas revenues, from setting up marine farms, developing marinas, and from the myriad of other commercial opportunities that will arise out of their ownership rights. These, of course include the ability to lease these rights to third parties including overseas interests like the Chinese.
Documentation on the Iwi Chairs Forum website highlights the fact that a cosy relationship has now developed with the National Party. Iwi leaders hold regular meetings with the Prime Minister and his Ministers, and they are given access to confidential Cabinet Papers. As described by Annette Sykes, their relationship with the Maori Party has facilitated what appears to be an unusually high level of intimacy: “The National Iwi Chairs Forum Executive has emerged as the key stakeholder group which appear to determine the Maori Party’s position on fundamental issues, and the Maori Party has acted as a doorman to allow them access to the key cabinet strategy committee on Treaty Issues comprising National Party Members of Parliament Bill English, Gerry Brownlee, Chris Finlayson, the Prime Minister, John Key and Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples.”
Quite who is pulling the strings became a little clearer during a TVNZ QA interview in 2009 between Guyon Espiner and Tariana Turia. When asked what the Maori Party wanted in return for abandoning its earlier opposition to National’s Emissions Trading Scheme, to support the Bill, she replied: “in the end, it’s not so much particularly what the Maori Party want, it is what the Iwi Leadership want, and they are the ones who have been leading the dialogue, they have been asking us to definitely sign up for it.”3
In other words, corporate iwi, with their traditional focus on privatising public property under the guise of putting right Treaty wrongs – and their new focus on claiming the indigenous rights promised by the government’s newly signed United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – are driving the agenda of the Maori Party and the National Party. That means that all public property is under attack from these powerful iwi corporations – and the government is opening the gate to their advances.
A number of Iwi Leaders Groups operate under the auspices of the Iwi Chairs Forum with well organised and resourced strategies aimed at extending iwi power and control. A prime target is the ownership and control of freshwater, with claims on behalf of several iwi having already been lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal. In addition, special iwi rights and privileges are being pushed at a series of Freshwater Forums that are presently being held to develop a national freshwater strategy. In addition, advances have been made regarding Public Private Partnerships, where plans to build schools and bid on State Owned Enterprises are already in the pipeline. Whnau Ora is expected to provide a wide range of lucrative opportunities for iwi to contract out service provision in social areas including Housing and Corrections.
Looking ahead, a key interest of Iwi Leaders is the forthcoming constitutional review. They are already well advanced. Margaret Mutu has been appointed as chair of the Iwi Leaders Constitution Group, with Moana Jackson the convenor. Their timeline involves spending the rest of this year on research and development, ready to take the debate around communities in 2012. Their objective is to “Prepare report for National Iwi Chairs Forum, to be disseminated to iwi and given to the Crown as the model for the country’s constitution.”4
The National Party is jumping to the tune of powerful Maori tribal corporations whose underlying strategy is to privatise whatever valuable public assets they can get their hands on – using whatever argument works at the time. In ceding to their demands, National is betraying the vast majority of New Zealanders who do not subscribe to the agenda of these tribalists At stake is the right of New Zealanders to have faith that their government will protect our public assets and resources from attack – whether that attack comes from outside our country or from within.