The Central North Island tribes have reached a crossroads in their journey to protect their sovereignty and self-determination. In recent decades these highly articulate tribal nations have been leaders in a number of political,legal and economic strategies that promote the recognition of individual tribal entities as sovereigns enjoying government-to government relationships with the New Zealand Government. Their cries for self government having being made in fora from the Waitangi Tribunal through to the United Nations, and from the hallowed halls of political power in Wellington through to rank and file protests on the street and national hui in Turangi called to discuss the injustices of policies of the Crown that deny Maori their tino rangatiratanga. These efforts and the sovereign status of tribes themselves has been attacked for many years by successive legislators with the spectacular Ruatoki raids of last year perhaps illustrating the depth of opposition that exists in the hearts and minds of the enforcers of state power , as responses that are neither pragmatic nor permissible in modern democracies of the kind that New Zealand settler state has promoted.
Bedeviled by contradictory pronouncements on their jurisdictional authority, and besieged by assaults on their tribal status, Central North Island tribes now face the threat of being swallowed up in “regionalization,” if not eliminated altogether if they are not vigilant.
How so one might ask? The large natural groupings policy of the Crown has now subtely been adapted to one of large corporate entities. The regionalization debate that results raises questions about the scope of tribal jurisdiction in the Central North Island region, in which the territorial jurisdiction traditionally defined as the mana whenua or jurisdicitional authority of tribal groups is blurred and will be largely absent as corporate entities designed by the state but implemented by the new friends of the state, the co-opted brown largely male bureaucracy take control of the spoils of the modern war of words, the so called negotiated settlements, which have been muted by the quiet discourse with Treasury officials in the corridors of power far from the hue and cry of the tribal instituitions on marae and wananga. But what is emerging is more than an intellectual discussion around traditional concepts of boundaries, ahi-kaa and ringa kaha. What the Central North Island tribes will have to confront is whether the corporate models of management that are being installed over their lands are the kinds of tribal government models that their tipuna had in mind when they promoted the Whitu Tekau or the Komiti nui o Ngati Whakaue. Are these the kinds of tribal government arrangements that respect all rangatira in the tribal community women and children alike and ensure an active participation by those affected by decision making processes around land use and benefit distribution.
These developments threaten to make local tribal governments largely irrelevant in the modern context too in the provision of funding and services to their tribal members as decisions become more and more centred at regional and national for a , and have the potential to severely undermine tribal self-determination and the government-to-government relationship of tribes to the New Zealand Government if there are not immediate steps taken to ensure the accountabilities of the self-appointed management regimes to those that they purport to represent. What Maori themselves in the Central North Island need to also confront is whether these arrangements will deliver change to communities that are so desperate for revitalisation or will just be harbringer of a further death knoll that has seen the vast populations of the area travelling away from the embrace of their tribal territories to places in foreign shores to ensure that the well being of their whanau is maintained.
I felt compelled to respond today after reading a number of articles from both sides of the divide. Those that have joined the CNI, those that have been excluded from the CNI and those that do no want to be part of an initiative but have fallen in the cracks of tribal dissent and disharmony. What is concerning is that the debate has been largely framed around the legacy that the Treaty of Waitangi Settlements policies will bring to the peoples of the region rather than around whether those policies themselves actively protect the right of self government that was promised to Maori in the Treaty of Waitangi or transform that promise into one where Maori become players in a market driven philosophy centred on wealth creation rather than the health and well being of Maori communites.
Quiet run-up to deadline
As the September deadline for lodging Treaty claims approaches, Maori Land Court Chief Judge Joe Williams is worried many Maori are going to miss out altogether on settling grievances.
But at the pace settlements were steaming along at now - with six Crown agreements in principle in the past year and 23 negotiations in process - all historical claims could be settled well before the Government's 2020 deadline, he said.
Maori have until September 1 to lodge all claims with the Waitangi Tribunal, which Judge Williams also chairs. He said with just over two months to go he was "anxious" about the lack of incoming activity.
"In the past, whenever we go into a region to begin an inquiry it lifts the number of claims as people get focused on the tribunal coming into an area.
"That bounce happens every time, and something that is troubling me is that we're not getting that bounce before September 1."
He said his concerns were not about generating more work for the tribunal.
While the big players - runanga and trust boards - had lodged their claims long ago, what inquiries did was bring to light smaller-scale issues.
Marae and whanau claims such as public work takings, land loss because of road construction, and urupa (burial places) disappearing weren't coming to light.
"I'm worried about the little people on the ground who don't know - the non-institutional level.
"One of the dangers in this process is that those little ones get washed out in the bigger raupatu [confiscation], Native Land Court korero."
To raise the deadline profile the tribunal would hold a number of judicial conferences where inquiries hadn't been held, and possibly in the main centres, so potential claimants could find out how to lay claims if they wished. Te Puni Kokiri is also running an awareness campaign.
But although those worries remained, the past six months had seen a dramatic transformation in how the Government and iwi dealt with tough issues, he said.
That included increased speed and engagement on the Crown's part, and political will on the Maori side to build coalitions across multiple iwi to drive through settlements.
That is high praise coming from the head of the tribunal, which last year put out two damning reports on the government process.
"Everyone understands that if we kept going the way we were progress would become more and more distant. What the reports did was they encouraged, well, really, they told the Crown to move outside the box they were stuck in - and to their great credit they did."
The $500 million Central North Island deal signed this week typified that change, and would be seen as a "watershed moment" in Maori development, he said.
"There is now a mood and momentum that I haven't felt before in my entire career as a lawyer or a judge.
"So that means there's room for quite a great deal of optimism for how long closure on historical claims is going to take.
"I can't give you a particular date but at this pace inside 2020 and probably inside 2015."