A proposed bill to allow leaseholders to freehold land in Waitara is the latest incarnation of a very old land grab, writes vivian Hutchinson, the New Plymouth community activist who helped organise the Taranaki Peace Walk to Parihaka last month (and who was the only Pākehā on the organising committee of the 1975 Land March led by Whina Cooper).
He argues it’s not too late to do the right thing — even at this late stage.
“Those people are with me now.”
When the New Plymouth District Council voted earlier this month to send the Waitara Lands Bill to parliament, only one councillor voted against. Howie Tamati, a former rugby league star, and the only Māori on the council.
The bill relates to leasehold titles on land that the 1927 Sim Commission, the Waitangi Tribunal in 1996, and the Crown, have all acknowledged was taken illegally from its rightful owners. Yet nearly 160 years after Te Atiawa whānau were alienated from their lands, the question of Waitara is still seeking a just resolution.
The Waitara bill is the latest attempt to do that — but I would argue that this is the final incarnation of a very old land grab.
The first shots of the Land Wars were fired over Waitara. Disputes over the purchase of what is known as the Pekapeka block led to the outbreak of the first Taranaki war of 1860. Five years later, the local iwi and hapū had most of their tribal lands confiscated by the government.
The Crown gradually gifted pieces of these confiscated lands to various local authorities, who then leased them out. Today, the New Plymouth District Council owns 778 leasehold titles in Waitara, from which it receives an annual return of around $1.3 million.
The Waitara bill, if passed, will give leaseholders the right to freehold those titles — ending the hopes of local hapū ever reclaiming that land.
On Tuesday, 5 July, when the council met to finalise the details of the bill, Howie Tamati (Te Atiawa, Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāi Tahu) stunned his colleagues with a speech that broke with their collective intention to “move things forward”.
Tamati, who’s stepping down this year, said he’d been unable to sleep well since he read the papers on the Waitara lands, and realised that this was going to be one of the last things he’d have to deal with as a councillor.
Warning his fellow councillors that he was close to tears, he said that his thoughts were with the men and women of Te Atiawa nui tonu who, along with other tribes of Taranaki, had protested against the injustices placed on them by the confiscation of their ancestral lands.
Tamati read the names of many prominent Te Atiawa elders over the past 160 years who had fought to try and reclaim what was taken … telling his fellow councillors: “Those people are with me now.”
“Waitara is in the rohe of Otaraua and Manukorihi and it is their taonga, their turangawaewae — it’s their place to stand. They have had little say in this decision today, and they are hurting and they are aggrieved.
“I stand here today and say I can’t and will not support this bill going forward to parliament. My tupuna are saying to me: ‘Do not sell the Pekapeka.’ The lands in Waitara were stolen illegally, and they should be returned to those they belonged to, and they should not be required to buy it back.”
After Tamati’s short speech, there was a long silence from his peers. Then all the other councillors voted in favour of accepting the bill and sending it to parliament, with Tamati the only one opposing.
His dissent was not recorded in the official minutes of the meeting.
A mayor’s awakening
New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd made national headlines in May when he announced he wouldn’t be standing for re-election following a backlash from voters after he’d tried to introduce a Māori ward in New Plymouth. Judd described himself as a “recovering racist” and spoke about a cultural awakening that had made him realise his attitude towards Māori needed to change.
What woke him up was learning the history of the Waitara lands, in the early days of his mayoralty. Until he’d read the historical accounts and saw “through Te Atiawa’s eyes” how they’d been alienated from their lands, he’d been on the other side of the issue, seeing the leaseholders as the victims of unreasonable Māori demands.
As he’s said: “What jumped out so loud to me was … not only what had happened, but how it had happened in our past. And that planted a seed that has been a constant journey for me about why I didn’t know this. Why didn’t I know?”
Last month, Judd led the Taranaki Peace Walk to Parihaka, in an effort to start a new conversation about race relations, civic inclusion, and peace and safety in our communities. The ongoing case of the Waitara lands suggests that here, too, a new conversation is required.
A letter from the chief
A change in conversation might enable us to hear again the words of Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake, a nineteenth-century Waitara chief of great influence and authority. As leader of Te Atiawa, he spoke for the original owners of these lands.
Wiremu Kingi often wrote of his wish for friendly relations with Pākehā settlers, but he did not believe he should have to sell land to achieve this result.
Just before the first shots were fired at Waitara, Wiremu Kingi wrote a letter to Donald McLean, the chief land purchase commissioner in the 1850s. McLean shares no small responsibility for initiating the conflicts that led to war, the alienation of the Waitara lands, and the confiscation of most of Taranaki province.
Protesting the pressure to sell, Kingi wrote:
“These lands will not be given by us into the Governor’s and your hands, lest we resemble the seabirds which perch on a rock. When the tide flows the rock is covered by the sea, and the birds take flight, for they have no resting place.”
But war and the legislative confiscation of land did follow, forcing many Te Atiawa families to become the seabirds that Kingi predicted.
Those seabirds are still with us to the present day. The continuing and widening inequality gaps between Māori and Pākehā in Taranaki are a consequence of a people spending decades dodging the tides, and not always finding a rock on which to land.
The old story
The old story of Waitara has been one of winners and losers. That story no longer serves the deeper needs of Taranaki in the 21st century. But the current crop of council and government lawyers and policy advisors don’t seem capable of laying out a pathway that will lead to authentic peace and reconciliation.
There is an assumption in the proposed bill that “freeholding” is a widely held social goal. It is argued that this change in land tenure will open up Waitara to new economic development, as investors and home buyers and shopkeepers will no longer be constrained by the current leasehold arrangements.
But privatisation of leasehold titles can also be seen as a continuing land grab in disguise. The bill as it stands would continue a 150-year-old process of alienating the original owners from their assets — assets that the owners still very much need to be working in their interests.
The freeholding process itself, given our current crazily volatile housing market, will almost certainly lead to a feeding frenzy among real estate agents, valuers and mortgage brokers. And that market reality will see poorer people, both Māori and Pākehā, and especially the elderly and people on fixed incomes, forced out of their homes on existing leasehold properties.
In 2014, the council offered to transfer the Waitara leases to Te Atiawa as part of its $87 million Treaty of Waitangi Settlement. The iwi passed on the deal.
The Treaty offer came with an unpalatable price tag. Te Atiawa were offered their own stolen lands at an average valuation of about $30,000 per lease — $23 million all up.
And with politicians over the years promising leaseholders that they would soon be able to freehold their homes, Te Atiawa would have been inheriting a powder keg of expectations that were not of their own making.
When you consider that Te Atiawa — like so many other iwi — were signing a “settlement” of their Treaty claim that amounted to less than 1 percent of the value of the land stolen from them, their “thanks but no thanks” response is understandable.
The old dog under the table
The Peace Walk to Parihaka was in some ways an echo of the Māori Land March to parliament led by Whina Cooper in 1975 — particularly in the sense that both walks were dignified events which bore none of the media protest cliches of placards, banners, flags or chanting.
Such hikoi are designed not to shout, but to invite people to talk with one another — and to talk in ways that break new grounds of possibility.
I was involved in organising the 1975 land march, an event that was not primarily motivated by historic grievances. It was a reaction to the contemporary legislation that was still alienating Māori land: the Public Works Act, the Town and Country Planning Act, and the Ratings Act.
Legislation was still the preferred instrument of theft in the 1970s, as it was with the massive land confiscations of the 1860s.
In 1972, the poet James K. Baxter likened the government’s Māori land legislation to a dog crouching under the table on which somebody is crumbling a loaf of bread.
“ … Each time that crumbs fall to the ground the government licks them up with its tongue. It hopes in time to devour the whole loaf.”
The bill that the New Plymouth District Council is sending to government for approval is just another step in the breaking up and devouring of the “loaf” that is the Waitara lands. In the privatisation of the Waitara leases, the old dog still hopes to devour it all.
Moving things forward
Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa Taranaki is the post-treaty settlement entity set up to represent Te Atiawa. It has decided to support the draft bill that is now being sent to parliament.
Under the bill, the iwi authority will be given a couple of council reserves, a block of land zoned for residential development, and first refusal rights on other surplus land.
While acknowledging the return of a small portion of the disputed land to the iwi, the authority is clear that the bill isn’t the deal that they would have preferred.
It says the bill “does not fully recognise or compensate for the fact the land confiscations [of the 1860s] were wrongful, unjust and in breach of the Treaty of Waitangi.” However, the authority is prepared to support the freeholding initiative in the interests of “compromise” and “moving things forward”.
Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa Taranaki says Te Atiawa iwi and hapū “have been expected to make immense compromise in order to progress these issues.” It hopes others are open to working with them “so that our community can move forward together”.
Lip service to reconciliation
It’s worth noting that Andrew Judd has also got in behind the freeholding bill, even though he, and several other influential councilors, have had serious doubts.
They, too, are speaking the language of compromise in the interests of getting “political movement” over a vexing issue. And, when questioned, it’s clear that they are trying to be pragmatic about what they think will win approval from their political colleagues.
Yet, I’m left thinking: Why is settlement of this issue based on such a significant level of compromise? What is it about our settlements process that expects the negotiating partner that has the fewest resources to make the greatest concessions?
Especially in this case, shouldn’t the Pākehā-led governance institutions be going the extra mile to do the right thing, rather than settling for what is palatable to the current crop of politicians?
Too much compromise means that we are left with lip service to reconciliation, and the real issues of justice over the Waitara lands will be left for a future generation to more fully resolve.
Peace and responsibility
It’s important to note that the Te Atiawa voice of compromise is being offered in the face of some over-the-top demands and threats from a number of leaseholders. They’ve staged street protests and threatened to disrupt some World Cup Cricket qualifying matches in New Plymouth as a way of drawing attention to their situation.
A few of the leaseholders have threatened to burn down their own houses if they’re unable to freehold their leases on favourable terms. A threat being taken seriously enough that the local fire brigade has visited the people to tell them not to do anything stupid.
Fears, too, that Māori landlords, if they had been given the leasehold titles, would exact some sort of economic revenge on the Pākehā residents of leasehold lands aren’t credible when you look at the actual history of the area.
Yes, the leaseholders at Waitara have been enjoying a privilege that was delivered to them by war and theft. They may not have personally engineered this outcome, but, nevertheless, they’ve been the beneficiaries of it.
And yes, this privilege has come at an intergenerational cost to the individuals and whānau of Te Atiawa.
Yet despite all this, under the continuing influence of the prophets Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi of Parihaka, the Māori families and the communities around Owae Marae at Waitara have preached and tried to demonstrate a message of peace and forgiveness.
For Pākehā people, this is a message that should not just give us good feelings, but should awaken our own responsibilities.
Peace and forgiveness are the qualities that give us the space to enable a different conversation — and the hope that we will indeed wake up, and then act for real justice and reconciliation.
The position of compromise taken by Te Kotahitanga o Te Atiawa Taranaki has not been supported by all its members. The iwi authority has faced significant opposition from the Waitara-based hapū of Manukorihi and Otaraua, as well as the nearby hapū of Ngāti Tawhirikura.
These three hapū opposed the signing of the $87m Treaty deal in 2014 between the Crown and Te Atiawa, arguing that the deal undermined the position of those tribal members who would rather have their confiscated lands returned. This is one of the reasons why the signing ceremony for the treaty settlement did not take place at Te Atiawa’s primary home of Owae Marae at Waitara.
Part of the problem here is that government authorities had already predetermined that the settlement process would be negotiated between Crown and iwi, and not at the more local level of hapū.
In 2014, some members of the local hapū ploughed a section of land in central Waitara and held a peaceful protest, an action imitating the historic Parihaka ploughing campaigns of the 1880s. This dissent was aimed as much at the Te Atiawa authority as it was at the Crown.
Members of the Waitara hapū also spoke at the most recent hearings on the Waitara Lands Bill. They reiterated that they didn’t want their iwi to sell and take the money. They wanted their ancestral land back.
As one of the Manukorihi elders told the hearing, the original declaration by Wiremu Kingi — that this land would never be relinquished — was as strong today as it was in 1860.
We can do much better
The push to privatise the Waitara leases, without returning the lands to the original owners first, is the primary reason for the failure so far of all the governance attempts to “move things forward” over this issue.
Everything else that has been tried has avoided the plain fact that the various statutory authorities are the receivers of stolen goods.
It was in my grandfather’s time, in 1927, that the Sim Commission concluded that the wars of the 1860s were wrong and the confiscations were unjustified. The Waitara lands were not returned then, but at least it was the beginning of saying “sorry”.
In 1996, the Waitangi Tribunal upheld the long-held Māori claims over these confiscated lands, and also concluded that the Crown had acted wrongly. The tribunal acknowledged the ongoing impact that the loss of confiscated lands has had on Māori communities.
A bill to freehold the Waitara leases was attempted in government two decades ago, and thankfully the then treaty minister Doug Graham stopped it. He wanted to see the lands available for the settlement process with Te Atiawa.
But just because Te Atiawa did not pick up this option when it was offered by later Treaty negotiators doesn’t mean the Pākehā-led governance responsibility to do right by these lands has ended.
I am Pākehā, and yet I join with Howie Tamati in the hope that the proposed Waitara Lands Bill — despite its good intentions — is not passed by parliament. We can, and should, be doing much better.
As New Zealanders, we should be asking a lot more of ourselves. Even at this very late stage, we should roll back this final incarnation of the very old land grab that is woven into the origins of our nation.
Why is it so difficult for the statutory authorities to get their heads around the idea that the right thing is to hand the control of these leases back to the original owners with no strings attached?
Transforming a legacy
Freeholding the Waitara leases may well be the ultimate outcome of all this, but that should be a decision made by the original owners, and not a choice made primarily by the political descendants of the thieves.
Similarly, it should be the choice of Te Atiawa and its hapū as to any special arrangement made for those low-income leaseholders who would be struggling to meet their commitments under fair market levels of rent for the land.
It is patronising for anyone to assume that Te Atiawa can’t make its own choices for the common good of Waitara and its most vulnerable residents.
This is what “no-strings-attached” means when you hand things back to the real victims of this historical disgrace. It means that Māori communities and their political institutions get to grow up and mature into their own exercise of authority. They get to make their own mistakes, have their own arguments between each other, and sort things out on their own terms, just like any other group of families who don’t always act with one mind.
The pressing responsibility of Pākehā here is not to sit at a table and hear yet more painful “submissions” from the real owners of the land. Our responsibility is to transform the conversations we’ve been having with each other over these important issues. Our job is to turn our legacy from one of anger, ignorance and amnesia towards one of memory, humility and reconciliation.
This is our own necessary cultural task, and a responsibility that we Pākehā need to pick up well before more issues like this are placed on any council table.
The deeply flawed Waitara Lands Bill could well become the spur we need to wake up and do the right thing.
Like last month’s Walk to Parihaka, such an awakening could be a first step in our own peacemaking.
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