Simon Bridges' Treaty settlement tweet may foresee the future – for better or worse

I saw a tweet today by National leader Simon Bridges, addressing reports the government is planning some kind of loan to allow Tainui to buy the land in dispute at Ihumatao. It flagged to me where the next phase of treaty settlements may lead us and reminded me of something Jim Bolger said a few years ago.

The government (if we take Jacinda Ardern’s unwillingness to confirm or deny as an indication something is going on) may be looking to help facilitate the return of 33 hectares near Auckland Airport to iwi ownership, by financing the purchase in some way.

It would be a rare example of the government purchasing private land – owned, in this case, by Fletcher Building – to help resolve a land grievance dating back to 1863, when the land was confiscated. Iwi from the area – specifically Tainui – has already settled its Treaty of Waitangi claim with the Crown and the law around settlements specifically exclude private land from being returned, on the basis that it would be wrong to settle one grievance over property rights by creating another. Although land has been bought by the government as part of settlements, it would be controversial for it to step into a rohe where a settlement has already been agreed and offer more. The question would arise, ‘if there, why not somewhere else as well?’

Which brings us to Simon Bridges’ text. He – or his tweeter-in-chief – wrote:

Something is up at Ihumatao involving financing by the Crown to Iwi. This will be a dangerous & costly precedent, unpicking New Zealand’s full & final treaty settlement process.

It’s a reasonable point, for exactly the reasons I’ve explained above. It could incentivise copycat protests in other areas, by protesters who would see a purchase or loan at Ihumatao as a precedent for a whole new round of claims.

Part of me shares that concern. The treaty settlement process has been one of New Zealand’s great political success stories that – aside from the trembling around Don Brash’s Orewa speech – has been achieved by parties across parliament and by New Zealanders across ethnicities.

It has been tenuous at times, but all the more remarkable and courageous for that. Maori, generally speaking, acknowledged that apologies, cash and land settlements were a form of redress seldom if ever seen from colonisers to those colonised and recognised the symbolic power of Pakeha New Zealanders (indeed all Tauiwi) being willing to sacrifice something today for the injustices of yesterday.

Pakeha, for their part, admitted the failings of the past but also that what was being returned was just a slither of what was taken. They respected Maori for being gracious in their acceptance of what was, to be frank, often a pretty poor deal; a bit like being paid back cents in the dollar after a company collapses.

Yes, that’s a generalisation. But it captures the political reality. The bottomline is that it was a delicate but admirable compromise.

Lest we forget, estimates have it that most iwi get about around three percent of what they lost. Total claim settlements have costed the government a bit over $2b so far; that’s what it spends on Superannuation every two months, according to this Stuff report.

Underpinning it all was the idea that these were ‘full and final settlements’. That this difficult period of facing the past would not sour the present into the distant future. We could bite the bullet and move on.

But here’s the thing. That may not be the end of it. Perhaps it was naive or optimistic or even unfair to ever think it would be.

Perhaps unpicking those full and final settlements – what Bridges fears – is inevitable.

Ihumatao certainly raises that spectre. We see a new generation of Maori leadership not willing to let sleeping dogs lie. The bitter taste of confiscation has not been removed by settlements for these people. For them, it’s not enough.

It’s raised questions about putting private land back on the table, something Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little has been quick to reject. But I can’t help but think this idea is not going away and this political rubicon may one day have to be crossed.

It’s an issue still alive within Maoridom. MP Peeni Henare said, “As someone who has been through those processes, and as a Māori, we always rue the fact that we can't have access to that in many of the negotiations I have been privy to and apart of in the past."

Note, “the past”. And hear what Raukawa treaty negotiator Chris McKenzie said on Maori TV last week:

“[Full and final,] it’s definitely a thing that’s written into the deed of settlement. Is it a thing that’s written into the hearts of the people who negotiate this? No, not at all.

"What we know is that this is full and final for today because this is the best of today’s justice that we could get. But there’s a funny thing about that justice, until it comes you’ll continue to strive for it and every generation will.”

As always, it’s worth remembering our history. Treaty settlements date back to the 1920s and it’s interesting to see the words even in Wikipedia:

By the 1940s, settlements in the form of modest annual payments had been arranged with some iwi. However, iwi came to consider the amounts to be inadequate, especially as inflation eroded their value, and the Crown has conceded that it did not sufficiently seek the agreement of iwi to declare their claims settled.

Is Ihumatao a sign that again iwi – or at least significant numbers of Maori – again consider settlements to be inadequate? Could returning a few percent of what was confiscated ever be seen as adequate? Will another generation, led by the likes of Pania Newton, be willing to accept what former negotiator Shane Jones says is the trade-off of affordability and history? Or will more be demanded by a new generation, as McKenzie suggests?

I understand how so little returned would be seen as unjust, but also at political risk in pushing so hard that goodwill is lost and a backlash provoked.

Seeing Bridges’ tweet reminded me of a past National leader, Jim Bolger, who refused at National Party conference to ‘play the race card’, even when urged to by some party members. When Guyon Espiner interviewed him for The 9th Floor one of the questions I most wanted asked was on just this matter. As a leader in the cause of treaty settlements, did Bolger really believe they were full and final?

His answer was not an unqualified yes. He was far from definitive. I always thought that was one of the most telling – and oft-missed – answers in the whole series. He said, in short, it would depend on whether people felt the settlements were just.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot as the Ihumatao protests have come to a head. It seems this may be a new phase of our wrestling with the meaning of the Treaty today. And it may have to involve private land at some stage… where there’s a willing buyer and willing seller, of course.

But how will will that stretch the goodwill around settlements and could it snap our race relations anew?

It may be that Ihumatao is the case that makes it clear ‘full and final’ is not as full and final as we were led to believe.