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Churches urge calm in seabed debate

By Paul Titus

Church people are concerned at the fast pace the government is taking to establish principles of ownership and customary rights of access to the seabed and foreshore. They also worry the issue has the potential to inflame divisive racial attitudes among New Zealanders.

Rev Morehu (Buddy) Te Whare says it has taken 160 years to reach the point where the legal ownership of the seabed and foreshore has been raised and now the government wants to clear the matter up in six weeks.

“What the government is proposing may be acceptable to Maori if there is enough time to work out the issues. If the seabed and foreshore are in the public domain it guarantees everyone access. This will work if it meets Maori needs to harvest the ocean.

“There is a distinction between what the public wants and what Maori feel on the issue and it has to be resolved. There can be greed on both sides. Hundreds of pounds of paua and snapper are taken illegally. Both Maori and Pakeha are doing it. It’s not one or the other,” Buddy says.

At issue are two very different worldviews, according to retired Methodist minister Rev Moke Couch. The European worldview is a Continental one that focuses on the land and agriculture. The other is the Oceanic worldview of the Pacific peoples who lived on small islands. For them the sea played a more important part in meeting the needs of people.

“People with European attitudes are trying to make New Zealand a part of good Olde England, while Maori look at it in their traditional terms in which the sea is part of the land. These two approaches need to be considered but we have a tendency to argue our way through things rather than explain them,” Moke says.

Auckland University Law Professor Dr David Williams was legal advisor to the Anglican bishop of Aotearoa for the last 13 years. He says there is a role for the churches to play on this sensitive issue when tempers are being raised unnecessarily.

Churches should emphasise the Gospel principles of reconciliation. The Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches have all addressed the issue of partnership under the Treaty of Waitangi. And, David points out, Treaty partnership surely requires calm reflection, not rushing in like a bull in china shop.

“The process is on a very short time frame. Consultations will last six weeks and it’s all meant to be legal by Christmas. It doesn’t require any radical liberation theology to accept that more time would be a good idea.”

David says the Crown has put forward four principles on which ownership of the seabed and foreshore is to be determined: open access for all New Zealanders, the Crown has the responsibility to regulate access and use, customary rights are to be protected, and legal certainty about what those rights are.

“Only one of those principles relates to the rights of Maori. The Crown has assumed the right to determine the whole process before customary rights have been defined.

“The Court of Appeal has indicated there is a possibility there are customary rights to the seabed and foreshore invested in Maori. In Treaty terms, this means Maori rights under Article Two may need to be protected.

“The Government has a responsibility to make laws in a bilateral way on the issue. Instead it is taking a unilateral approach. Consultation requires you to be open to arrive at a different outcome than you start with. In this case it appears the Government has decided its position in advance and is only going through the motions because the only thing to come out of the consultation hui will be some moderate tweaking. That isn’t a Treaty partnership.”

Tumuaki Rev Diana Tana of the Maori division of the Methodist Church, Te Taha Maori, says she and others are gathering information and opinions on the issue in order to prepare a statement for the church’s annual Conference in November.

Moderator Mona Riini of the Maori section of the Presbyterian Church, Te Aka Puaho, says developments on the issue are happening so quickly Te Aka Pauho has opted not to take a position on it but rather let people respond through their iwis.