In My Opinion: Henry’s word | Issue 20

In My Opinion: Henry’s word | Issue 20

A Political Paradox

In 2004, the Helen Clark-led Labour government passed the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Despite being greeted with outrage, the act set in train a series of events that ultimately preserved the Māori seats.

That sounds contradictory, and it is. It’s a political paradox.

In 2003, the Court of Appeal made a unanimous judgement on the “Ngāti Apa” case. The decision triggered a series of legal and political decisions that would push many New Zealanders into a racist and discriminatory mindset.

The hapu, Ngāti Apa, had applied to the Marlborough District Council for a resource consent to establish marine farms off a nearby beach that the tribe had used for decades. The council refused to issue consent. As a result, Ngāti Apa took action through Te Kooti Whenua Māori (the Māori Land Court), claiming that the foreshore and seabed customarily belonged to Māori.

The Land Court, concerned the case was out of its jurisdiction, passed the case onto the Court of Appeal. That court unanimously decided that the Land Court did, in fact, have the right to make decisions over Māori claims for ownership of the foreshore and seabed in New Zealand.

The court decision was met with widespread outrage. Middle New Zealand feared their longstanding beach-holiday culture was under attack. This reaction was, however, only brief.

Clark made a swift decision to stay favourable in the eyes of the voters. This led to the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004. The law effectively nullified the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Ngāti Apa case — Māori could make no claim for the beaches in New Zealand.

Some 30,000 people, Māori and non-Māori, marched to the grounds of parliament in protest; meanwhile the prime minister was more interested in meeting a famous sheep.

The controversy over the law set the stage for a new, socially conservative, movement in mainstream New Zealand, providing an unmissable opportunity for an opposition political party.

At the beginning of 2004, the then-National Party leader Don Brash made a speech in Orewa that would make New Zealand political history. The speech focused almost exclusively on racial separatism connected with Māori rights and announced National’s newest socially conservative policy: repealing Māori electoral seats.

The speech was undoubtedly populist, which is to say that its tone, its rhetoric and its entire purpose were designed simply to attract voters to National.

The party achieved this, and then some. A political poll a month later saw the Brash-led National Party jump 17 points. The party had struck a deep-centred core in the electorate and was now the most popular political party in the country.

That core was a resentment that many non-Māori New Zealanders had been feeling towards the indigenous culture since the argument over preferential Māori rights had been ignited in the foreshore and seabed claim.

From then on, National’s election campaign was centred on stripping Māori of their rights. Leading up to the election, the party produced masterful campaign billboards that addressed the issue; the slogan “iwi/kiwi” was made famous. The billboards subtly accused Labour of being “pro-Māori” and implied National was “pro-New Zealand”. A wildly inaccurate claim given that Labour had just passed a law that prevented any future interest Māori might have in the beaches.

However, the truth didn’t matter to National. The party was content so long as the polls remained favourable, which they more or less did right up until election night.

National lost. But went within a hairs-length of winning.

No doubt many commentators and academics have convincing explanations for why the chips fell the way they did. However, perhaps Labour’s very un-pro-Māori stance in 2004 spoiled National’s plan to convince the voters that they were.

National’s cornerstone policy of ending Māori privilege may have been defeated because the party lacked a nice, simple example of how Labour was what it was blindly accused of being. The “iwi/kiwi” billboards were blatantly inaccurate, and perhaps an increasingly socially conservative New Zealand realised it in time. Perhaps enough to at least blur the distinction between Labour and National.

The Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 may be the only reason that Māori are still represented in parliament today.

This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2015.
Posted 11:48am Sunday 16th August 2015 by Henry Napier.