Monday, August 18, 2003

It's a good start

The government has released it's response to the question of foreshore ownership, and predictably noone is happy. Maori who had their expectations raised by the Court of Appeal ruling are fuming at the thought of only getting those customary rights practised by their ancestors, rather than full alienable title. And the rednecks are unhappy because the government hasn't squelched those "bloody maaris" out out of hand.

I had previously opined that any eventual solution was likely to be a damn sight more complicated than National's "beaches for all" rhetoric would suggest, and we're seeing it now. It seems that the government is planning to explicitly recognise usage rights as well as freehold title, and try and steer the Maori Land Court to granting the latter only in extremis. This seems fair enough, and it's not exactly an alien concept (well, at least not to those of us who have studied a bit of history... once upon a time usage rights were all people had, and often they had to give scutage or 40 days military service in exchange for them to boot). Meanwhile, Maori still get to pursue recognition of their rights through the courts (and, in extreme situations, get freehold title), and everyone still gets to go to the beach.

Objections from National and United Future have focused on the government placing the beaches in the public domain rather than asserting ownership. I think this is a brilliant move, precisely because it makes it vastly more difficult for the crown to alienate our beaches in the future. We'll be enshrining the principle of open access in law in a way that is very difficult to go back on, no future government will be able to privatise and sell the beaches (or charge usage fees, or hand over exclusive title to Maori, for that matter), and the next time a wealthy foreigner comes demanding riparian rights, the government can say "we cannot give you what we do not have". It's a great way of ensuring that open access remains open and free; the fact that its sticking it to propertarians by reinstating the commons is icing on the cake.

So far we're still at the principles stage, and the precise legislation is yet to be written. But its a good start, and one which at least gives us a way out of this mess that doesn't involve breaching the good faith this country was founded on. There is apparantly a website for submissions; I'd encourage everyone to use it to have their say.