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.

Comments (10)

by Mark Wilson on October 20, 2010
Mark Wilson

"Mana enhancing".

Why is stroking a Maori ego more important than anyone else's? Or can we say the truth that they are behaving like all the other toddlers in Parliament?

You are right that it will rebound on them at the election. Labour's lurch left will appeal to their core vote and no one else, the Maori Party stance (if they don't shut up) will bring out the redneck vote for National big time (yeah I know - glass houses etc) as I don't believe Peters can convince serious numbers to vote for him and National will be able to show plenty of "reds under the beds" good cause to vote against Labour. Despite all the wishful thinking Act will take Epsom and a couple of other seats and the Maori party risk being as powerless as the Greens have been since formation.


by The Falcon on October 21, 2010
The Falcon

Why is stroking a Maori ego more important than anyone else's?

Good call. Also:

Code: You can't trust those Maaori, can ya?

Never miss an opportunity to play the race card huh Tim? However, if you look at iwis as giant multi-million dollar corporations, dealing with transactions for land worth millions of dollars, maybe you would be less willing to trust them. After all, we don't just take corporations for their word when they say "we won't break our contracts". Laws are made to hold them to it, because we recognise that millions of dollars can tempt anyone.

Just because they are run by people with brown skin does not make iwis any more trustworthy than any other corporation.

But thankfully Andrew has come out with a somewhat more balanced article on the foreshore issue, rather than just ACT bad, Maori Party saints.

by Tim Watkin on October 21, 2010
Tim Watkin

Falcon, don't know where you get the 'Maori Party saints' idea from, when I say it's hard to get wound up on their behalf and their argument is all about face-saving rather than anything substantial. Neither do I believe you're so naive as to think that this push by ACT isn't politically driven.

And you seem to be confused about iwi's ability to charge for access.

A) This has nothing to do with contracts, it's a piece of legislation that everyone except ACT says already clearly makes it illegal to charge for access.

B) You think millions could be made charging for access to the foreshore and seabed? How much? What activity would be charged for?

C) I didn't say there was anything wrong with National's plan to add the word "free" to clause 27, just that it's politically difficult to make a case for the change when they themselves say it's unnecessary.

D) Why single out iwi as untrustworthy, and not councils and the Crown as well? Didn't you say something about skin colour being irrelevant?

And Mark, as I said, the Maori Party are upset about something of no substantial import. But I have no doubt they're reflecting the views of many of the party's members. You may not like their protests, but I reckon their supporters expect nothing less.

by Tim Watkin on October 21, 2010
Tim Watkin

BTW Falcon, I'm curious how Andrew's post is more balanced. He and I seem to be making similar points – that it comes down to political point-scoring and face-saving and that both parties are arguing themselves into a tangle.

I disagree with him that the Maori Party could be looking for a way out of this. Too much is politically invested for them. They MUST get the law change they promised this term. And I wouldn't have talked about ACT's position as "keeping the beaches open" because this has nothing to do with access to beaches per se, just the wet bit at the bottom. But I assume he's merely repeating ACT's rhetoric in that line.

So where the difference? Because it could be a fruitful area of discussion.


by Andrew Geddis on October 21, 2010
Andrew Geddis


I agree that it is very, very unlikely the Maori Party are seeking to jump from the waka ... I raised the point as a possibility with the intention of dismissing it. If that wasn't clear, my error.

I also don't really see much difference in what we say - except your post is better written and appeared more quickly.

by The Falcon on October 21, 2010
The Falcon


Just because a policy helps in the polls doesn't make it unprincipled - e.g. tax cuts help in the polls but are also consistent with right-wing ideology.

With regards to your points A to C: there are two possible explanations. Firstly, that the law really was fine and the word "free" was unnecessary. Or secondly, the somewhat conspiratorial view that this was another backroom deal (like the $1b payout to iwis before the Maori Party would support the ETS), and the ACT party foiled their evil plans. Since 2) is at least a possibility, I think it's good that the law has been made more certain.

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

... ACT's line is insulting

You should know that ACT distrusts government more than any other party. But government can't be reigned in - it's pretty much impossible to bind future Parliaments to stop them from doing something in future. Iwis aren't really being singled out though - as I said before, just like any other big corporation, it would be naive to trust to their word.

About Andrew's post, after reading the posts again I agree they were nearly equally balanced, aside from the fact that you played the race card while Andrew managed to resist the temptation...

by Tim Watkin on October 21, 2010
Tim Watkin

That's my point. Given ACT's commitment to reining in government, the fact that it's singling out iwi at the expense of government makes it curious, no? Perhaps it's just because they're playing to the crowd? Otherwise they'd say to the government, 'thanks for inserting the word 'free', we'll shut up now'.

As for the race card, I'm merely arguing that ACT is playing it. But maybe they're motivated by the public good, and aren't motivated by politics but by principle.

But what principle, exactly?

Another thought... If iwi are just big business as you say, and ACT is pro-business and in favour of businesses exploiting their property rights under the law, why is it so concerned about this issue? It's not about protecting property rights and getting Maori their day in court anymore, they've won on those issues. So you'd think ACT would back big business over wooly, hippy ideas about free access, wouldn't you? What exactly is the neo-liberal principle they're standing on?

by The Falcon on October 21, 2010
The Falcon

What exactly is the neo-liberal principle they're standing on?

I presume the principle of good lawmaking, honesty and certainty. Putting aside the conspiracy theory that the word "free" was deliberately left out: let's assume the Bill already legislated for free access, but it wasn't entirely clear. ACT is simply improving the drafting of a Bill in the interests of certainty and clarity.

The NZ Herald already gave ACT kudos for its actions, surely you can't blame ACT for gloating a bit and trying to win some votes as a reward for their improvement to the drafting of the Bill?

by Tim Watkin on October 22, 2010
Tim Watkin

I don't see any harm in adding the word free. The bill - as I understand it, and maybe one of our legal types can confirm this - says that customary title holders can only exercise powers as prescribed and charging money was not prescribed, therefore isn't legal. So it doesn't seem necessary. But, whatever.

And if ACT is satisfied with that word, all good. But, as I say, if they try to target iwi, then I can understand Maori feeling pissy.

by John L on October 26, 2010
John L

The foreshore is the area from the mean high water spring tide mark down. This is well above the normal high tide mark so the foreshore includes a lot of dry sand as well as the wet part of the beach.

The 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act specifically included a section prohibiting charging for access to customary. Section 40 states "Neither the guardians of a foreshore and seabed reserve nor the applicant group nor the board is entitled to charge or collect fees or other form of payment from any person or body for the use or occupation of the reserve" Note the wording. The Marine and Coastal Area Bill only speaks of individuals "Every individual has the right..." and doesn't say access will be free.

Having seen the Tolaga Bay Hauiti Incorporation's new locked gate and trespass notice across the public road (the old coach road) south of the town I wouldn't rely on Maori owners acting any differently than Pakeha ones. Good lawmaking should be completely clear.

Anyone who gains special rights to mineral and other resources under the new Bill should lose their rights to benefit from Crown ownership of the rest of the coast. This was the deal when the Crown assumed ownership in the middle of the nineteenth century - everyone's gain in a share of the whole country's foreshore and seabed more than matched what they lost in rights to some small local area. Rivers, seas and beaches were prime transport corridors and this measure was essential to creating a modern state.

The National government's cynical sellout on this birthright of New Zealanders should be prevented.

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