Gordon Campbell on the Ihumatao dispute

protestoras stand off with police
Photo: RNZ/Matthew Theunissen
There is no tidy way forward on the Ihumatao dispute, given that the mana whenua with valid claims to the site are locked in conflict. Earlier this year though, Fletchers did indicate its willingness to consider any serious offer to buy the 33 hectares in dispute. For the government, buying it back would be chicken feed. In dollar terms, the site has been valued by Auckland Council at $35.7 million for the land, and $36 million all up. As Fletchers CEO Steve Evans said in February:

We have not obtained any offers which we have verified as serious and that we could take forward. Like any of our land sites, we would always be open to offers which valued the land at or above what we thought was its value,” Evans said.

So theoretically… the government could choose to intervene, could buy back the land and could give itself the job of brokering a solution between iwi that might eventually be acceptable to all. No one said this would be easy.

To head down that road would also mean, as PM Jacinda Ardern says, going in over the heads of the Te Kawerau a Maki iwi tribal authority, which has given its consent to the Fletchers housing development. That would be unfortunate. It also seems inevitable if the dispute is to be peacefully resolved, in the long run. If it chose, the government could claim a justification under the Treaty, given that the land ended up in Fletchers hands not from a Treaty settlement but via a farm purchase from private owners whose own claims to ownership originated in the unjust land confiscations of the 19th century.

Fletchers is not the villain here. They consulted Te Kawerau a Maki and its kaumatua Te Warena Taua, and claim to have a programme to protect the site’s historical and cultural values – some of which are more directly related to the adjacent Stonefields Historical Reserve site. As Evans said in February, Stonefields is not part of this development – which will return 25% of the land involved to the Kiingitanga. A small proportion of the subsequent housing will also be made affordable to Maori owners:

Under the deal, Fletcher Building has committed to returning 8ha of land at the [35ha] site to the Kiingitanga, and Te Warena Taua said houses would also be set aside for mana whenua. “We’ll start off with 40 homes [ the development envisages 480 homes all up] coming back to our people at shared-equity ownership. It’s good for us because it will allow for people and their families who come from our village to come back to the village and bring their children and mokopuna up.”

All very well and good. Yet the consultation and iwi consent process that Fletchers has gone through sits atop historical injustices that have never been addressed. In the circumstances, for the government to sit back and allow Fletchers and its iwi allies to push ahead with the development would compound the sense of grievance felt by the competing mana whenua and community representatives who comprise the protest group Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL). As RNZ has noted, a generational divide exists between SOUL and the kaumatua from Te Kawerau a Maki and representatives of the Kiingitangi movement who have given Fletchers the green light to proceed.

Bu not intervening, the government would still be taking sides in this dispute, albeit passively. Politically speaking, the government cannot hope to continue to play the role of Pontius Pilate in this dispute. After all, the Crown was the agent of the original chain of events that eventually delivered this land into Fletchers’ hands. Leadership would start from a recognition of the basic historical injustice. Moreover, a Crown re-purchase from Fletchers would not necessarily become a millstone, much as the government may fear landing themselves in the middle of another Ngapuhi-style dispute. There would also be fears within government of setting a precedent for intervening in any business development that hasn’t been validated by a prior Treaty settlement. Tough. Them’s the breaks if New Zealand is serious about regarding the Treaty as a living document.

On the potential upside… both sides in the Ihumatao dispute claim members from the same iwi, hapu and whanau. (Reportedly, SOUL leader Pania Newton is the niece of the Te Kawerau a Maki elder Te Warena Taua.) Both of these rival camps share an interest in providing affordable housing for Maori families, both share an interest in protecting the site’s historical values, and both wish to give due weight to the site’s tourism potential – especially in conjunction with the adjacent Stonefields Historical Reserve. Even so, at this stage it’s hard to see what a credible resolution might look like.

For now, the government is probably trying to buy time to see how Maoridom lines up on the sides involved. Given that the beginning of construction is imminent, the time left for government to sit on the sidelines is limited. On the current signs, the protest movement is only likely to build.

Family affairs

When times get heated around the table, its always worth taking time out to listen to a bit of Sister Sledge….

And as Kanye West says here, “for the cousins… the answers in us.”