Government stuck in the (foreshore) sand. Again

As ACT and the Maori Party kick sand in each other's face over an amendment that changes nothing, we get a good look at the politics of perception and National's misery in trying to hold its coalition partners together

In law it all comes down to one word - "free" - but to understand the Maori Party's political affront to ACT's proposed amendment to the Marine and Coastal Area Bill requires two words, and they are "mana enhancement".

Rodney Hide has decided that the first form of defence is attack, and like numerous politicians before him has backed the race relations horse as the one to raise his party's poll ratings out of the margins of error. So he's got himself a legal opinion saying that the new bill, covering the foreshore and seabed, does not guarantee free public access to any parts of the foreshore and seabed that wind up in customary title.

National says the bill is crystal clear. Clauses 27, 60 and 63 together guarantee free access, so there's no need to change. Except, er, they're willing to change if that makes it even clearer than clear.

Why would they get themselves into a tangle like that, agreeing to change something they insist doesn't need changing? Why, the politics of fear, of course. Instead of telling ACT to go jump, they're worried about Don Brash's "mainstream" New Zealanders getting lathered up by ACT, or even Winston Peters. So they concede. Hey, it's not changing the substance of anything, right?

Problem is, National and the Maori Party's coalition agreement kicks off with the words:


The National Party and the Maori Party recognise the importance of mana maintenance and enhancement for both parties to this agreement.

The relationship between the Maori Party and the National Party will be one of good faith and no surprises.

And if you trawl around the good maraes of this nation, I suspect there's a fair bit of surprise and not many manas feeling enhanced by this amendment.

Cue Maori Party outrage, talk of votes being pulled and "little fat redneck" comments, because what ACT wants spelt out is that it's land held under customary title - ie, land in the hands of iwi and hapu only - which needs the extra clarification. Code: You can't trust those Maaori, can ya?

ACT's focus on Maori charging others to the wet part of the beach is inflammatory and convenient rhetoric, ignoring the fact that the Act deals with the whole marine and coastal area, covering other foreshore and seabed owners such as the Crown and councils.

If ACT's worried about free access, shouldn't government be reined in as well? Why single out iwi?

National's suggested solution, by which they would add the word "free" to the clause that "guarantees public access" does the job, including all owners of the common area, but it doesn't serve ACT's or the Maori Party's political purposes. So don't expect a quick resolution.

Once again, we see that negotiating the politics of the foreshore is as boot-sucking as walking across the foreshore itself. 

As I've written before, this issue keeps tripping up politicians because they're trying to establish a law that treats Maori and Pakeha, iwi owners and private owners, differently. That, and the fact that the issue is an easy political fire to light for the sake of popularity.

Just as Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples found it was an issue with enough momentum to launch a party, so they now must face that fact that the issue also has the momentum to kick start other parties, both ACT and New Zealand First.

Live by the sword, die by the sword, I guess.

It's hard to get too wound up on behalf of the Maori Party. While ACT's line is insulting, neither it's nor National's proposed solutions change the substance of the bill that they've said they'll vote for. Beyond the face-saving, there's nothing for them to worry about.

As for ACT, it's equally meaningless. The few iwi and hapu who win customary title, remember, will have control over the wet part of the beach only, not the dry part. So, even if the government's wrong and the bill as it stands doesn't guarantee free access, what might they charge for? Launching or landing a boat? And,um,... what else?

Yet both parties are vexed about this, regardless. It's politics, you see. And next year is election year. The last thing any party wants is to have sand kicked in its face.