Is there really anything progressive about the call for Maori ownership of the foreshore? In this blog post I argue in favour of nationalising the foreshore, including the foreshore land of rich pakeha, to make it public land, available to all.
It looks like the Government is soon to pass legislation that will vest the ownership of the New Zealand’s foreshore and seabed ‘in the people of New Zealand’, effectively nationalising a resource whose ownership has recently been ambiguous. This move is to avoid the scenario where some iwi may make claims of coastal ownership to the Maori Land Court.
The left in New Zealand has had little to say about this debate, but where it have made pronouncements this has often taken the usual unthinking line of supporting any Maori struggle, regardless of its merits. Peace groups, far-left organisations, and parties like the Greens have come out against government moves to nationalise the foreshore and seabed.
Interestingly, the ACT party also backs the right of Maori to fight for beach ownership in court, saying government proposals amount to ‘property seizure’. ACT has actually been quite sympathetic to Maori claims on the foreshore in so far as they enmesh Maori in claims on the basis of essentially private property rights. ACT sometimes plays for the redneck rural vote, but their urban liberal upper and middle class white vote is also quite happy with the type of Maori claims that help draw some Maori into business and private property thinking. Likewise the Business Roundtable also supports Maori making foreshore claims, arguing that property rights need to be protected and also that Maori should receive just and fair compensation if their property rights are exhausted by the state.
It has to be asked whether the bulk of Maori would actually be any better off with iwi ownership of the foreshore. After all, the call for iwi ownership of the foreshore is not a call for resources to be given to Maori in state houses in Porirua and Wainoni. In fact it is a further corporatisation of land, which is what has happened with Ngai Tahu land ownership in the South Island. Today’s iwi are more like capitalist business enterprises than they are like the iwi of classical Maori society before capitalism. Ngai Tahu, for instance, is the biggest corporate land-owner in the South Island with hundreds of millions of dollars of assets, a chunk of which is milked off by its executives and consultants. Meanwhile, the average Maori income in the South island is about $14,000 per year, and the statistics for Maori continue to worsen (as do those for working class pakeha). There therefore seems no progressive reason why this multi-million dollar outfit should get the foreshore as well to add to their property portfolio.
Nationalisation, by contrast, could ensure that no private interests - domestic or foreign, pakeha or Maori – can section it off as their own property. Within this, it would be quite possible to protect Maori customary access for food-gathering etc. In fact the most practical way to ensure customary access for Maori is to make sure such resources stay out of private hands, including that of any iwi which might commercialise such property. The foreshore should be common land, which means national ownership, with full rights of access to everyone.
What has been evident in this debate is Labour’s cynicism. They encouraged people to think there was a chance of iwi ownership of the foreshore, then snatched it away, after a ‘consultation process’, which was actually a sham as Labour was never going to hand the foreshore over anyway. This kind of cynical manoeuvring actually helps deepen racialised divisions.
In supporting nationalisation, the left also needs to highlight the hypocrisy of the National Party, with its ‘one standard of citizenship for all’. Such slogans might be a good idea, but the parties of the right have no intention of implementing such standards. To highlight this, we should call for any nationalisation of the foreshore to extend to individual private (pakeha) owned parts of the foreshore and beaches – which is a move that National and the other parties of the right would never support. Furthermore, the left also needs to challenge the right of property owners to block access to all beaches and waterways. A recent land access report showed that at least 30 percent of land adjoining water is in private ownership. The Queen’s chain is therefore a myth, and in fact during the mid-1990s the last National Government attempted to erode the Queen’s chain even further.
The call for land nationalisation is useful in that it raises issues of socialism, working class unity against racism and economic exploitation and also allows the left to turn their fire on big private landowners rather than on Maori. Genuine radicals should be working to improve the social statistics of Maori and organise the redistribution of resources on the basis of need, not on the basis of what an elite layer of Maori and pakeha want for themselves.