Whenever I see the words ‘Māori’, ‘foreshore’, and ‘claim’ in a headline, my stomach automatically clenches. Reading the news yesterday about a claim lodged on behalf of all Māori for custodial rights over the foreshore and seabed, I found myself anxiously holding my breath. Here we go again, I thought.
I was 14 when Māori marched in protest from the top of the North Island to Parliament in numbers reminiscent of Dame Whina Cooper’s historic hikoi of 1975, and I still remember the mass hysteria of the media at the time. This march, according to many Pākehā outlets, was all about the greedy mowries wanting to charge Kiwis to go to the beach. Outrageous! When would the hand-outs ever end?
It was a lot to take in as a teenager. I didn’t know what customary title meant back in those days, and my grasp of New Zealand history only stretched as far as a basic understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi and a cursory awareness that something really bad had happened at Parihaka. I understood enough, however, to have the gut feeling that Māori had been screwed over more than a few times by the Government of New Zealand. I wondered whether it was happening again.
As it turned out (surprise!) it was. The controversial Foreshore and Seabed Act of 2004 - a piece of legislation that effectively enabled the annexation of Māori interests that the Crown hadn’t formally acquired (read: stolen) yet - was pushed through Parliament by the Labour Government of the time, but not before two Māori members, Tariana Turia (now Dame Tariana Turia) and Nanaia Mahuta, crossed the floor to vote against the bill. The fallout from the controversy would eventually result in Turia’s resignation and the creation of the Māori Party.
The legislation was finally repealed and replaced with the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act in 2011. Which brings us to yesterday’s anxiety-inducing headlines.
What happened to propel the debate back into the news cycle again? In a nutshell, Maanu Paul, former co-chair of the New Zealand Māori Council, lodged a claim at the Rotorua High Court on behalf of all Māori to ensure that Māori rights over the foreshore and seabed were not extinguished before the recent deadline for claims under the act.
“Our position is quite simple,” Paul told the NZME. “The Government has been in charge since 1840. They've made a mess of the water, they've made a mess of the environment, our clean green image is about to be destroyed and we're saying we've had a guts full of this poor management.”
A sentiment that, given the revolting state of many of our waterways, you’d think would be pretty unremarkable.
As I read stories about the claim from each major outlet, I dreaded the moment when I’d reach the comments. If you’ve ever thought to yourself that racism doesn’t exist in new Zealand, I present to you Exhibit A: A snapshot of just a few charming insights from the commentariot of stuff.co.nz:
Nautiboy didn’t believe Paul’s motives “for one second”. “It's all about snouts in the trough. It's all about the money money money!” he said.
Karlman was similarly aggrieved. “It is for everyone or no one. Maori didn't make NZ, they invaded it. In truth they have no more claim here than anyone unless you count squatters’ rights.”
“It's about time NZ throws out these ridiculous claims,” Spat said. “Every NZer contributes to this country and not one race, regardless if native or not, should be able to enjoy this country as a whole without parts of it being handed out to anyone.”
“Didn't read the article,” Kiwimantis confessed. “Can't be bothered. Sick of you. Just go away the lot of you.”
Then Rangie took it a step further, suggesting the destruction of our founding document. “You want seafood, go to the supermarket like the rest of us. They should not have moved the Treaty last week, they should have buried it.”
Next we move to Exhibit B: Highlights from the comments on nzherald.co.nz’s Facebook page.
We’ll kick off with a rare voice of reason, Liz Jagersma: “The crown literally signed a document that guaranteed ownership of the foreshore and seabed to Māori. It's called the Treaty of Waitangi.”
The comment attracted a surprising number or likes, but of course, others couldn’t deal with having that uncomfortable truth rolling around the interwebs.
“The Treaty is honestly just a huge joke. Time to move on from it and forget it. It’s the one thing that still divides this country. Time to move on as one,” Michael Syke Dyer said.
“Can someone start an NZ white people council to protect all white people?” Martia Julienne Tarce Alico asked.
“I am tired of the greed of the Maori,” Don Wilkie complained. “Their claims have done more damage to the economy of NZ than anything else. It is time for all Kiwis to say bugger off we all own the forshore and seabed. Next they will be demanding money for the air we breathe.”
And then there was this gem from Owen Budd. “There was no conservation in NZ until Europeans came along. You were eating everything while running around stealing wahine and pounamu from each other.”
Conservation gets right to the heart of the argument over customary rights, but in a way Mr Budd could likely never understand. Māori, as kaitiaki (guardians) of the environment, want to preserve our precious resources for future generations. Given the current pollution of our waterways, with run-off from dairy farms destroying our rivers and sewerage overflow in urban areas pouring straight into the ocean, I’m not sure how that could be seen to be a bad thing.
But when the Pākehā public generally has little knowledge of the issues underpinning the foreshore and seabed debate, I worry that we’re only just scratching the surface of the ugliness that may unfold during the process of sorting through the many various claims. Especially in an election year. Shall we start betting on how long it will take Don Brash’s Hobson’s Pledge lobby group to start placing full-page ads in the papers now?
It certainly didn't take long for Prime Minister Bill English to wade into the fray. "These claims I think are designed to attract attention but I don't think they should be taken seriously," he told Radio New Zealand yesterday afternoon. "It looks like a bit of a stunt to me. There's been a deadline and a whole lot of claims published - but the legal hurdles for that are very high."
Is anyone else experiencing a profound feeling of déjà vu?