Maori should grab this chance
By John Armstrong
4:00 AM Thursday Apr 1, 2010
National's long-awaited prescription for healing that weeping political sore otherwise known as the foreshore and seabed should be grabbed with both hands by the Maori Party.
It will not get a better deal than the one outlined in the discussion document released by Attorney-General Chris Finlayson yesterday. National has stretched beyond the normal limits of its flexibility to come up with a lasting solution.
After battling in typically implacable and uncompromising fashion for seven long years, Tariana Turia was consequently able to claim a first victory in the form of official acknowledgement from National that the hated Foreshore and Seabed Act will be repealed.
But that was never in doubt. It is what replaces that law that matters.
Turia was consequently far more circumspect when it came to responding to the detail of Government's preferred alternative.
That was to be expected. The Maori Party will want to be seen to be pushing hard to the very end to extract as much as it can from National.
Satisfying the Maori Party is the price National is forced to pay to keep the parliamentary votes of Turia and her colleagues on confidence motions.
It thus suits the Maori Party to keep bargaining for as long as it can - not least because Labour's legislating of the foreshore and seabed into Crown ownership was the party's genesis and therefore a major factor in maintaining its unity and purpose.CCID: 31685
The arrival (finally) of Finlayson's discussion document heralds Decision Day for the party, however. It can no longer cling to the foreshore and seabed like some kind of comfort blanket.
It is now or never - or, at least, not for a long time to come.
That means swallowing National's intention to make the the foreshore and seabed a "public domain" which no one owns, something which sticks in the craw of Maori who insist ownership of the foreshore and seabed is their inalienable right.
The concept of "public domain" is not new to this debate, despite this Government's attempt to portray it as such. But it is an idea whose time may have arrived. It is a non-threatening and neutral-sounding compromise to Pakeha ears; its name implying the sort of place you go to walk your dog. It thus meets National's bottom-line of beach access for all.
Adopting it gives National leeway to be more concessionary to the Maori side of the argument, not least in advancing the concept of "customary title" by lowering the threshold for recognition of the customary rights claimed by some coastal iwi.
Being accorded such title will not equate to freehold title. The land cannot be sold. But customary title would give iwi significant rights (and thus power) in the granting of permission for coastal activities plus a major say in managing the coastal environment.
Significantly, coastal iwi would be able "to obtain commercial benefit" from use of the area in which their customary rights have been recognised. Some of the unintended consequences from all this can only be guessed at.
It will be a miracle if there are not serious disputes over the access to and use of resources, some of which are bound to become political nightmares for whomever is governing.
But that is for the future. Right now, the Maori Party carries the responsibility of making optimum use of a benign political climate to strike a deal both for its own sake and the country's.