Foreshore & Seabed: Now onto the money round

Tariana Turia this week celebrates one of the great political triumphs in this country's history. However, this debate is far from settled. The trickiest decisions lie ahead

The most fascinating thing about the release of the Foreshore and Seabed Act review is all that has not been said, rather than the words so far used this week.

It's true, I haven't been listening to talkback, and I'm told the ill-informed opinion there has been just as opinionated and ill-informed as you might expect. But in other media the word muted springs to mind. Think back to 2003 through 2005 when this issue led to rushed laws, angry hikoi and racist election campaigning. This week the language used to discuss the review – lest we forget the power of language – has been more considered and calm.

Back then, Labour, already stung by ethnic tensions over its 'closing the gaps' policy in the Clark administration's first term, panicked. Their instinct wasn't all bad – I'm still inclined to think that a completely nationalised foreshore and seabed, a la what we once believed the Queen's Chain represented, has merit. But to shut down legal and property rights for Maori claims while allowing other New Zealanders to retain private ownership was, as the review panel found, "simply wrong".

National can take little credit from the episode, however, as it saw a gap and chose to drive a political wedge into it, in the hope to win the 2005 election. Just a week after the Court of Appeal made its 2003 ruling, National's Nick Smith was hysterically claiming it "opened the floodgates to more Maori claims over beaches, estuaries, harbours...". Thankfully, Smith and his ilk are quiet this time round.

The Maori Party, formed on the back of the debate, also exploited the issue for its political gain; but to form a new political movement. Now, they are vindicated. Tariana Turia's victory this week is one of the great success stories of New Zealand political history. She's been lucky – from Don Brash's loss in 2005 to Winston Peters' loss in 2008, she's seen many cards fall her way. But let's not under-estimate her achievement.

From a minority position in New Zealand and in parliament, she has turned the House on its head so that both major parties have a political need to support a repeal of the Act. It's a lesson for us all in political patience, grassroots agitation and sheer gumption.

What we've not had to endure this week has been the dog whistle politics and the political machinations exploiting people's love of this country. And hasn't it been refreshing?

Let's not pretend, however, that this thing is done. There are so, so many devils in the detail. Primarily, we need to establish whether customary title does exist in this country, and if so, exactly what it means. At the moment, everyone's using the words, but there's no agreed definition.

Does it mean that Maori have the right to do the very things they were doing in 1840, and nothing more? That is, fishing, gathering seafood, living in small communities. Do they have to have been exercising those privileges unceasingly for 170 years? Or does it mean something more – that some iwi or hapu have property rights over parts of the coastline, or at least that Maori have the right to use land with customary title for activities that they weren't engaged in back in 1840, such as mining, starting aqua farms and building apartments. Some are hopeful.

Remember, this all began when the Top of the South tribes sought clarification of their rights to the Marlborough foreshore and seabed because they wanted a greater stake in marine farms and other commercial developments. Where does the review leave their aspirations? The money question still has to be asked, let alone answered.

And what about the foreshore and seabed already in private hands? Will the review panel's advice and this government's commitment to unrestrained public access impact on those rights?

We could ask the Supreme Court to decide these questions. But the Maori Party will want to do a deal with National rather than see this back in the courts. They want control over their political victory, not leave it to the learned vagaries of Dame Sian Elias and her crew.

Politically, a clear-cut win for them is critical. This issue is their raison d'etre. It's why they've put their fist in their collective mouths while this government – their government – has sat idly by and done nothing about rising Maori unemployment. It's why they were effectively mute over the tax cuts, Budget, 90-day probation bill and more. This is enough to see them through the next election.

National? Well, they want to starve Labour of Maori votes, so they're happy for the Maori Party to win. Especially while they're being such lackies on other issues. Expect them to drag negotiations out for as long as possible. Because as soon as the Maori Party gets the law repaled and a new law in its place, it's off the leash. For the same reason, Labour wants this done and dusted asap.

For now, I leave you with one last thought – the power of politicians to shape the public debate. I doubt public opinion has changed much in just six years. Yet a more responsible House – or, at least, one with the political motivation to be more conciliatory – has kept national passions in check thus far. People hear a more fair-minded take on the issue, and respond in kind.

Our politicians would do well to remember that.