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Dr Muriel Newman

Coastal Coalition’s Citizens Initiated Referendum Gets the Green Light

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Since 1996 our MMP voting system has given New Zealand a series of coalition governments, consisting of a mainstream party – Labour or National – and minor parties. Some minor parties have radical agendas that are not supported by most voters. Having such parties in government becomes problematic when extreme policies that have a significant impact on the country, are passed into law as part of coalition deal making – against the wider interests of the New Zealand public.

In light of this reality, it is time that the main Parliamentary parties recognised their responsibility to strengthen the democratic safeguards available to the public. If MMP survives the upcoming referendum vote in November, then addressing this issue should be a priority in the promised review.

If we lived in Switzerland, Italy, or many US States, the public would have the right to veto unacceptable legislation. In those jurisdictions, if the public backlash against a law change is strong enough to enable sufficient signatures to be gathered within a set timeframe – 100 days in Switzerland, 90 days in the US, and 3 months for constitutional matters in Italy – then a binding referendum is triggered.

In reality, the “People’s Veto” as it is often called is rarely used since political parties do not like the embarrassment of seeing their new laws thrown out. Accordingly, they will go to greater lengths to make sure that laws that they pass are in the interest of all voters, not just a minority interest group with parliamentary representation.

A case in point is the Green Party’s controversial anti-smacking law, which was passed by Parliament because of a series of political machinations that saw Labour needing the support of the Greens – not because parliamentarians really believed it would prevent child abuse. The Citizens Initiated Referendum (CIR) that was held showed that the public was overwhelmingly opposed to the radical new law and had a People’s Veto been in place, the new law would have been repealed.

Of the four countries that have CIR (NZ, Switzerland, Italy and the US) only in New Zealand is the government not bound by the result. That means the public must rely on the honesty and integrity of their MPs to act with greater conscience than their own coalition interests to protect the country from extremism. Changing the CIR law to make vetoes on new legislation binding would be a good start.

The latest example of a minor coalition party being allowed to progress a radical law reeking of self interest, that will have a disastrous impact on the future of New Zealand, is of course the Maori Party’s Marine and Coastal Area Act. Passed by John Key’s government in April, the new law will see New Zealand’s publicly held coastline progressively privatised to the Maori tribal elite.

Iwi control of the foreshore and seabed was the primary 2008 election promise of the Maori Party. Few National Party voters could have foreseen that after the election the party that promised to abolish the Maori seats in Parliament would end up abolishing public ownership of New Zealand’s coastline.

The first hint of what was in store came after the election when, in their coalition agreement with the Maori Party, National signed up to a review of the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act. That was as far as they needed to go. While the Maori-Party’s one-sided review concluded – as could be expected – that a law change was needed, a wider government review showed that the public overwhelmingly wanted the coast to stay in Crown ownership where it had always been.

That National went ahead and forced through a radical law change to give private Maori tribal interests legal title to an invaluable public commons, amounted to a gross betrayal of the public interest. It was deceptive lawmaking. Led by the architect of the law, former Ngai Tahu legal advisor Chris Finlayson, the whole process was a disgrace. From rushed reviews, to the suppressing of information, to misrepresentation and half-truths, the National Party should be ashamed of its actions. To make matters worse, most National MPs did not read the new law but instead relied entirely on Mr Finlayson’s propaganda and misinformation.

Regrettably, most of the media were equally as negligent and didn’t read the proposed law either. As a result proper scrutiny of what National and the Maori Party were planning was sadly lacking. What was a surprise was that while the media usually headlines any plans by any government to privatise public assets, when it came to privatising the publicly held foreshore and seabed – with the trillions of dollars worth of mineral resources – they were largely silent.

It would be fair to say that almost everyone who made the effort to understand what the Marine and Coastal Area Bill was going to do to the future of this country was horrified and staunchly opposed. However, most New Zealanders were left in the dark, trusting their Prime Minister who promised that the new law wouldn’t go ahead unless there was widespread support. In spite of virtually no support, the law was forced through anyway.

All in all the Marine and Coastal Area Act was not wanted by New Zealanders – not in any shape nor form. It was imposed by the Maori Party, which gained only 2.4 percent of the party vote at the last election and passed by National in order to keep their coalition partner happy.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, Dr Hugh Barr, the co-founder of the Coastal Coalition and secretary for the Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations, explains in his article Why we are running a Citizens Initiated Referendum against National’s Marine Coastal Area Act, why the Marine and Coastal Area Act needs to be repealed, and identifies the biggest scandal of all: “Tribes do not have to go to court to gain customary title. They can negotiate secretly with the Minister, and then have whatever is agreed ratified by an Act of Parliament. So there is no need for proof, only that the Government has a majority in Parliament to pass the Act. The public cannot appeal against any corruption of this process.”

If National had openly and honestly asked all New Zealanders whether they supported the repeal of Crown ownership in favour of a regime which will see the coast progressively privatised to Maori tribes, they would have responded with an emphatic “No”. So, thanks to your support, the Coastal Coalition has launched a CIR under the Citizens Referendum Act 1993 to give voters a chance to have their say on this important matter. Promoted by Dr Hugh Barr and Dr Muriel Newman on behalf of the Coastal Coalition, the petition question approved by Parliament asks, “Should the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act 2011 be replaced by legislation that restores Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed?

Under the law we have 12 months to gather the signatures of 10 percent of registered voters – at the time the referendum petition is lodged. We have been advised to aim for 400,000 signatures to cover invalid signatures from people who sign more than once or who are not on the electoral roll. By law we can spend $50,000 including GST promoting the petition, and then another $50,000 promoting the “Yes” vote – if the referendum goes ahead.

If we succeed in gathering 400,000 signatures, the government then has 12 months in which to hold a nation-wide referendum where New Zealanders will get a chance to have their say on whether they think the foreshore and seabed belongs in Crown ownership as the birthright and common heritage of all New Zealanders equally, or whether it should be progressively privatised to the iwi elite. If the “Yes” vote, that Crown ownership should be restored, wins then it is up to the government to decide how they will respond. In a Parliament where most parties opposed the new Marine and Coastal Area Act, a decisive vote by the public for the repeal of that law is unlikely to be ignored.

While gathering 400,000 signatures is a massive challenge, think on this – every one of you reading this newsletter has a copy of the referendum petition form attached as a PDF document. If everyone printed off two copies and gathered the signatures of 20 eligible voters, we would have our 400,000 signatures!

This newsletter goes out to a mailing list of well over 20,000 informed New Zealanders. While not everyone will care deeply about this issue, if everyone regarded it as their democratic and patriotic duty to collect 20 signatures in the national interest, they would be helping to strengthen democracy in New Zealand. By successfully collecting 400,000 signatures, we would send the government a message that New Zealanders are not prepared to accept radical policies that will detrimentally impact on the future of the country, being railroaded through in the name of political self-interest. If we don’t take a stand over the Marine and Coastal Area Act, the Maori sovereignty movement will have won ownership of the coastline. But they won’t stop there. Their goal is to get the whole country back. Will some future government look at the lack of political fallout from giving away the coast and allow tribal interests to next claim private property?

This is a very dangerous slippery slope and New Zealanders need to send a strong signal that public and private property is not up for grabs.

Please help our cause by doing your best to get as many of the forms filled in as you can – full instructions can be found here . But remember to make sure that people haven’t already signed the petition, that they are registered on the electoral roll, and that they write clearly. While we are not in a position to march on Parliament in the way that the Maori sovereignty movement did when tribal ownership of the foreshore and seabed back was demanded back in 2004, we can march on Parliament in our own way through this petition and a referendum. It is the silent majority’s way of telling the government that they cannot ignore mainstream New Zealand. Let’s tell our MPs in no uncertain terms that our views do matter.

Please send this newsletter on to everyone on your mailing list who you believe is concerned, and please do what you can to promote the petition as far and wide as possible. Full details about the referendum can be found on the Coastal Coalition’s website at www.CoastalCoalition.co.nz.

Thank you all for your support – we will keep you informed of progress!