Thursday, May 20, 2004

Shameful and unjust

Jim Anderton asks himself "what's a kiwi like me to think?" over the government's foreshore & seabed legislation. Well, this "pro-Treaty, pro-New Zealander, pro-Maori, anti-racist" New Zealander thinks that it is shameful and unjust. Oh, it's better than National's "alternative" of flat-out confiscation and denial, but it is still unjust. Not because it fails to recognise the possible customary rights or guardianship of Iwi (those parts of the legislation are perfectly acceptable), but simply because it treats Maori as second-class citizens. It denies them rights guaranteed both by the Treaty (articles two and three), and by our general democratic principles of fairness and equality.

On the Treaty front, article two is quite clear. Maori were to enjoy the continued possession and enjoyment of their lands, estates, fisheries etc. for as long as they desired. Absent alienation or expropriation by the government, if they owned something in 1840, then they are still entitled to it today. Whether they actually owned patches of foreshore in 1840, or merely enjoyed various usage rights is something for the courts to determine. However, by denying the ultimate remedy of freehold title, the government is stacking the deck, and greatly enhancing its hand in subsequent negotiations for compensation.

More importantly, there's a clear breach of article three, and our general principles of fairness and equality, in that we already allow various people to freehold foreshore and seabed - a right the law would deny to Maori claimants. Shouldn't we be treating everyone equally? If we are saying to Maori "you cannot own it, but we will compensate", shouldn't we also be saying the same to existing landowners? And conversely, if it is OK for foreign millionaires to own beaches, then why not Maori?

Yes, allowing the courts to award freehold title runs the risk of more foreshore falling into private hands - but it is what justice and equality demand. Besides, there are alternatives. Using the customary rights scheme to create universal presumptive customary rights of access, navigation and recreational usage across all foreshore (or at least, all foreshore not granted a permit to restrict) would make the whole question of private ownership fundamentally irrelevant.

We have to get this issue right, otherwise we'll be poisoning our race relations and creating a problem for future generations. Fortunately it's not too late. The government still has time to change from its current shameful path, and find a solution which will uphold all our "kiwi" values - justice, equality, and beaches for all.