The politics of Ihumātao

Why is it often the first instinct of Māori women to protect land and just as often the first instinct of Māori men to cut a deal? In 2004 Dame Tariana Turia took a principled stand against the Foreshore and Seabed Act even as her senior colleagues, including the late Parekura Horomia, went all in negotiating carve-outs and concessions instead of taking the Dame Whina Cooper stand: “not one more acre”. It’s true that land protectors like Eva Rickard, Angeline Greensill, Annette Sykes, and too many others to name could count on the support of a good deal of Māori men – for every Hana Te Hemara is a Syd Jackson – but it’s just as true that often some of their worst public critics were almost uniformly Māori men.

Nowhere does this truism appear truer than at Ihumātao, the headland above Auckland Airport where Fletcher Residential is planning a 480-home estate on top of one of the earliest sites of human habitation in New Zealand. On one side are the land protectors. Pania Newton and the mostly women-led SOUL who are arguing enough is enough. The government and council took the local people’s land for everything from farms to industrial parks to the wastewater treatment plant. On the other side are some prominent kaumātua and the Kawerau Iwi Tribal Authority under the chair Te Warena Taua’s leadership. Taua argues that at this stage it’s better to ‘buy in’ than be locked out.

And framing it like that, he’s quite right. The iwi authority and local people exercise very little hard power. Under resource consent law Fletcher Residential are obliged to consult, sure, but after properly considering what they hear in consultation they’re still free to reject it. The local people might direct the developer to do this or that, but whether he or she does is a matter of discretion. Without a legal power to stop a development what can you do other than negotiate? Not a great deal, and so Taua, in his own words, “brought in” negotiating the return of some private land to iwi hands, a reduction in the number of homes that’ll go up, and a guarantee iwi members get access to affordable housing on the site.     

It’s a good deal, right? Yeah, considering the leverage Taua went in with, but I think it’s actually destructive to higher principle. Newton, SOUL, and their supporters are taking a stand not only for the land itself but for rangatiratanga. In this country it should be a first principle that mana whenua get the opening say on what happens to their land. They shouldn’t have to negotiate a development down, as Taua did, or occupy the land to stop it in its entirety, as SOUL are doing. Permission from mana whenua should be the very first thing a developer does before lodging a resource consent application. After all nearly every inch of land in New Zealand remains Māori land, even if we give it an imagined category like “freehold”.

This is an important point to establish, and it’s why SOUL isn’t a NIMBY group. Newton, for example, makes no mention of noise, traffic, “character”, “lifestyle”, or any other manner of urban nuisance when she argues against Fletcher’s development. Instead the argument is about protecting the mauri of the land, something quite different from character or any other form of perceived specialness, and the principle that stolen land – which Ihumātao is – should return at the first opportunity to the people from whom it was stolen. In the 19th century the Crown pinched the land for no other reason than the local people were “Kingites”. In the 21st century there’s an opportunity, however small, to give it back.

The key word is “small”, though. Politically SOUL is at sea. Last month māui street revealed no appetite for ministerial intervention. Taua is also publicly questioning SOUL’s mandate to speak for the local people and the land, leading to some scepticism around the rōpū’s standing. But that seems like a misdirection. It seems true enough that SOUL have no “mandate”, so to speak, and as iwi chair Taua does, but the mana (as distinct from a mandate) to speak in defence of the land comes from whakapapa rather than a vote at an iwi AGM. As long as Newton, SOUL, and their supporters continue to exercise that mana they’re deserving of support and solidarity.

20,000 petitioners agree.