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Maori step up protest plans

15 March 2004

The Government is facing "legal and illegal" Maori protest action against foreshore and seabed legislation.

Maori are stepping up their opposition to the policy and plan to converge on Wellington the day before the law is introduced. There are plans to block the motorway into Wellington and camp at Parliament Grounds.

"The plans indicate the level of frustration people feel," Hawke's Bay iwi Ngati Kahungungu protest organiser Mereana Pitman said yesterday. "We have legal and illegal strategies planned."

The plans were announced at a hui in Auckland at the weekend which issued a warning to Maori MPs that they would be voted out unless they crossed the floor on the legislation.

Associate Maori Affairs Minister Tariana Turia, who said yesterday she had considered resigning over the matter, was among those in attendance. She later told a Labour Party regional conference in Wanganui there was widespread opposition to the Government's proposals.

"The people at the hui were literally horrified, not just at the loss of rights, but because the proposals for legislation deny them the fundamental right of access to the courts to settle disputes."

She was not intending to quit her portfolios yet, but "depending on how the proposals end up, I may have to consider other options at some future time."

Mrs Turia's backing of the hui has highlighted differences between the Maori MPs. Her colleague, Associate Maori Affairs Minister John Tamihere, dismissed its organisers as a "bunch of nuts".

He was not impressed by talk of protests. "I don't accept mob rule."

The escalation in Maori protests comes as the Government pushes ahead with its policy despite a damning Waitangi Tribunal report and widespread Maori opposition. Continued uncertainty over the ownership of the foreshore and seabed has helped fuel a race relations debate sparked by National leader Don Brash calling for an end to supposed "race-based" policies.

The escalating row over the direction of race relations and Maori policy has forced the Government to consider an inquiry into the Treaty of Waitangi and wider constitutional issues.

Prime Minister Helen Clark is expected to brief Cabinet today on the options, which include a royal commission, and the matter will also be discussed by the Labour caucus tomorrow.

Maori MPs have been in negotiation with Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen over the legislation, which originally proposed putting any foreshore and seabed not already in private ownerships in the "public domain".

But the Government appears to be leaning toward scrapping that label in favour of Crown ownership, a change which might secure it the necessary support outside Labour to pass the legislation.

Under the legislation, Maori will also be able to go to the Maori Land Court for the recognition of customary rights. While that would not entitle them to freehold title, they would be able to stop a development which severely impacted on them exercising that right.

Mrs Turia has already said she will abstain from the vote and further defections among the Maori MPs would place the legislation in jeopardy.

Dr Cullen has indicated he is confident of the support of Labour's Maori caucus. "I think actually we have a high degree of buy-in from the Maori MPs to the way the policy is developing at this point."

Gordon Jon Thompson and Tracy Watkins,
The Dominion Post
© Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2004

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