A photograph of Hori Whakataka whose hapū land was taken while he fought in World War One. (Photo supplied)

When producer Eugene Bingham worked on an investigation into perpetual leases, it opened his eyes to a painful history.

 

Signatures. So small and yet so often the source of so much raru and strife. Or even, sometimes, a stark and significant tohu of all that is lost.

So it was with the signatures of two men on a document found during the research for Fleeced, Mata Reports’ investigation into perpetual leases.

The document was the World War One enlistment form that Hori Whakataka signed when he joined the New Zealand Māori (Pioneer) Battalion in 1916. The other signature on that old piece of paper belonged to Englishman William Oates, who signed as the witness.

But while Hori was away fighting for king and country on the other side of the world, and losing a leg in battle, the colonial project continued back home.

By the time he returned, he and his hapū had effectively lost all their land.

And, in a cruel twist of fate, the man in control of all that land was William Oates.

There’s no evidence that William Oates’ signing of the enlistment form was anything more than a coincidence. After all, at the time of his death in 1930, Oates was lauded as one of the best-known figures of the East Coast. He’d given a lifetime of service to the community, and, as a notable figure, his signature would no doubt have been daubed on countless documents.

But as Hori’s granddaughter, Tina Olsen-Ratana, told Mihingarangi Forbes and Annabelle Lee-Mather in the documentary: “Imagine how he must have felt? To return home to nothing. He’s lost his leg . . . and all he’s come home to is a small section on the hill. There was nothing else left. It’s all gone.”

The block in question, Tuatini, at Tokomaru Bay, Tairāwhiti, is one piece of around 26,000 hectares of whenua Māori held in perpetual leases.

The whole scheme is surely one of the most perplexing and painful arrangements to linger on the country’s statute books.

And yet, it’s one that many in Aotearoa are either unaware of, or have come to accept as a fact of life — an ongoing injustice that’s been baked into the law books and has become too hard to undo.

Would that be the reaction if we weren’t talking about Māori land? If we were talking about the property rights of Pākehā landowners? Where are all the “one law for all” warriors when it comes to laws that only disadvantage Māori?

Tina Olsen-Ratana, who is fighting for the end of perpetual leases over her hapū land. (Photo: Mata with Mihingarangi Forbes)

Weeks after the story was screened, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The injustice. The mamae. And the confusion and anger that must have sat in Hori’s heart, and which he must surely have carried for the rest of his life.

That hurt and anger certainly lingers to this day for his uri.

I’d played a small part in working on Fleeced, Mihingarangi Forbes and Annabelle Lee-Mather’s astonishing piece on perpetual leases, as executive producer. When they first told me about the topic they were tackling for this investigation, I immediately thought of the tractor protests of the late 1990s.

Back then, when the government proposed a review of the perpetual lease system, farmers took to the roads, rolling down to Parliament from Taranaki, full of steam and fury. Their livelihoods — derived from grass grown on land owned by Māori but leased to them under conditions first hammered out a century earlier — were at risk.

At the time, I was a journalist working in mainstream media (my bread and butter for more than 30 years). And while I paid attention to the story, it was through a lens more focused on the plight of the farmers.

I don’t recall seeing anything back then that explained the history of the perpetual leases, or the plight of the Māori landowners who’d been denied a livelihood from their own whenua for a century by the perpetual leases scheme.

Eventually, a compromise was reached, and the story disappeared from the news cycle. But while the farmers had been appeased, that compromise hadn’t solved anything. The injustice borne by the Māori landowners, along with the ongoing social and economic impact of that loss, has remained.

It may be that their loss has seemed less obvious or visible. It’s easier to understand how the theft of millions of acres through raupatu (land confiscations) had thrust many iwi further down the path of impoverishment, stripped them of connection to their lands and taonga, and denied them access to wāhi tapu. But the consequences have been no less devastating for iwi affected by the perpetual leases scheme.

Would such blatant inequity be allowed to stand for this long if it wasn’t Māori land? Where is the outrage?

Heather Bassett, a historian who specialises in Māori land legislation, has an idea. “If a group of Remuera landowners went to their member of parliament and said: ‘My land’s been leased for 120 years. I didn’t agree to it, I can’t stop it.’ There would be some outrage. There might be a law change.”

Tina Olsen-Ratana is more blunt: “This is an example of inequity, and an example of system racism.”

You can understand her directness. For her, this is personal.

In 1916, when Tina’s grandfather signed up for the war as a teenager, the whānau still had control of its whenua.

But while Hori Whakataka was away, the government used the 1895 Native Township Act — designed to ease the way for Pākehā settlement and create opportunities for settlers — to lease it out from beneath the whānau.

One of the original leaseholders was William Oates, a sports-loving Englishman who had come to Aotearoa and settled on the East Coast in the 1990s. The term of his original lease was supposed to be for just 21 years. But he lobbied for more, and when the leases came up for review, they became perpetual leases.

While his businesses flourished — a boarding house, butchery, bakery, storekeeping — and he converted yet more land into sports grounds, the owners of the whenua wept, and fought.

That fight continues today, with uri such as Tina Olsen-Ratana as determined as her tūpuna.

“It was by pen that this was taken, and it’s by pen that it can be given back,” she says. “All we need is a government that can see the inequities and injustice of what’s happened.”

Will this government be that government? Unlikely, if we judge by the reaction of Māori Development Minister Tama Potaka’s answers during an interview in the documentary.

Asked if he would make a commitment to looking at a repeal of laws affecting perpetual leases, he said: “No, I’m not going to make that commitment right now, but I certainly am very aware of those issues.”

His priority, he said, was emergency housing — which, in a way, is not a million miles away from the issues raised by the owners of the Tuatini block, some of whom are homeless.

But that didn’t sway the minister’s thinking around the need for any law changes.

“It’s pretty tough for various entities and whānau . . . that’s the law today, and that’s what it is,” said the minister.

“It is what it is.”

So, if “it is what it is” — what is it, exactly?

Historian Heather Bassett, who’s given evidence before the Waitangi Tribunal on many land deals, including Tuatini, said the perpetual leases were the product of an aggressive desire to find land for settlers, alongside a paternalistic attitude towards Māori.

“I’ve read hundreds and thousands of files from these government departments, and they very much take decision-making authority on themselves and assume, ‘Oh, Māori won’t be able to farm this properly,’ or, ‘There’s too many of them to properly administer and make decisions about the land. It’ll be much simpler if officials do this for them,’” she said in the documentary.

Such attitudes, such decisions, continue to have an impact on iwi Māori today, even though they are rooted so very much in the past.

Historian Heather Bassett. (Photo: Mata with Mihingarangi Forbes)

Yet there has been resistance to change.

In the 1990s, a review of the perpetual lease system drew angry protests, including from Taranaki farmers working lands which Māori owners lost control of a century earlier. Proposed reforms were watered down, guaranteeing lessees the right of perpetual renewal, but allowing for seven-year rental reviews and the phasing in of market rents on the unimproved value of the land.

It was a fractious time, but in the documentary, the compassion and understanding landowners hold towards the lessees shines through.

Dion Tuuta, chairman of Parininihi Ki Waitotara, an incorporation representing 11,000 Taranaki Māori shareholders, said his issue was with the Crown, not the lessees.

“That system imposed on our tūpuna denied them their tino rangatiratanga, denied them the right to use their land in accordance with the way that they wanted to use it. It treated them like children . . . purely because they were Māori. And so I have nothing but aroha for my tūpuna. I have huge disgust for the people that implemented the system over them.”

On the other coast, at Tokomaru Bay, it’s a similar sentiment.

“At the end of the day,” said Tina Olsen-Ratana, “it’s not the people who are on the leases today. They didn’t do this. It’s not their fault — it’s the system itself that’s corrupt and that has alienated us.”

It’s a system of alienation that continues today. And, as Fleeced shows, it’s only in learning about our past, that we can understand our present.

Seeing the wounds of injustice inflicted on generations long ago, I can understand why they continue to weep.

 

Eugene Bingham (Pākehā, Ngāpuhi) is a freelance producer and writer. He has been a journalist and storyteller for more than 30 years, reporting and producing news and current affairs across newspapers, television, digital and podcast platforms, and winning multiple awards as an investigative journalist.

E-Tangata, 2024

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