The protest occupation at the site of a proposed Erebus memorial at Sir Dove-Myer Robinson Park in Parnell is the latest evidence of what seems to be an assumed Maori right of veto.
Dame Rangimarie Naida Glavish is leading the protest,
claiming it’s a culturally significant site (isn’t it always?) and that there
was inadequate consultation with Maori. Yet her own iwi, Ngati Whatua, gave the
project its blessing after a consultation process going back to October 2018.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Ngati Whatua Orakei – the hapu with mana
whenua (territorial authority) over the site – detailed its involvement in the approval
process and reaffirmed its support.
There’s a pattern emerging here. As at Ihumatao and
Wellington’s Shelly Bay, protesters are asserting a right to block projects
that had been given the green light - in the case of Shelly Bay, after years of squabbling.
In all three cases, dissidents have challenged decisions
made by their own iwi organisations. To put it another way, significant public
projects have been compromised - some might say sabotaged - as a
result of intra-tribal disputes.
In the case of Ihumatao, this will come at a substantial
cost to the taxpayer after the government agreed in December to pay $30 million
to undo a housing development deal previously agreed between the local iwi and Fletcher Building.
We can safely assume the eventual bill will be much higher
once legal costs and consultancy fees are totted up after a process that we’re
told could take five years. That’s the price of the government’s eagerness to win the approval of the Ihumatao activists and their media supporters, who
ensured the occupation got plenty of sympathetic publicity.
In the Parnell affair, Auckland mayor Phil Goff appears – so
far, at least – to be standing firm against demands that the Erebus memorial be
placed elsewhere, though I wouldn’t put money on him holding his ground if the
heat goes on.
You certainly don’t have to look far for examples of timid councils
backing down in the face of Maori insistence that approved projects be
reversed. A notable instance was the about-face executed by Hastings District Council in 2018 over a walking track up the eastern face of Te Mata Peak. The $300,000 track
was built and paid for by the adjacent Craggy Range winery, which owned the
land and did everything by the book. But the local iwi objected at not having
been consulted and demanded that the track be removed.
Both the council and the winery meekly capitulated. The
estimated cost of “remediation” at the time was $650,000. I don’t know what the
final cost came to, but I noted recently that you can still clearly see the
outline of the track zig-zagging up the Te Mata escarpment. If you didn’t
laugh, you’d cry.
In this case, the iwi veto – which, as far as I can tell,
had no basis in law – was exercised retrospectively, making it all the more
expensive. But the lesson was clear: bullying works, especially when
councils are terrified of being accused of racism.
It worked in New Plymouth last month too, when council workers
rushed to remove American flags that had been placed along the main highway to promote
a rally of classic American cars.
The organisers had council approval to put them up. But when Taranaki Iwi
chief executive Wharehoka Wano took exception to American flags being flown
ahead of Waitangi Day, the order went out from the town hall: take them down! Never mind that the
council had okayed them in the first place, or that it had also arranged for special
Waitangi Day flags to be displayed around the city. This
seemed a case of unelected, unaccountable people exerting authority just because they can.
Of course the council apologised. “We’re sorry we dropped
the ball in the run-up to our national day,” it said in a grovelling statement. “We’ve
been in touch with iwi to apologise.” The council was taking steps to ensure it
wouldn’t happen again, and the flags would be put up again once Waitangi Day had passed and fragile cultural sensitivities were presumably less likely to
But “apologise” for what, exactly? Not asking the iwi’s
permission? Are councils now expected to anticipate iwi objections to something
as harmless as a display of American flags? Should they obtain prior iwi
consent to all approvals, even those that look routine and innocuous, just in
case they might offend someone?
Here’s the thing. Councils are elected to represent the
interests of all citizens. They are required to follow processes laid down in
law to ensure fair and equal treatment. Once they start going outside those
processes to humour a privileged interest group – whether it’s one based on
ethnicity or any other characteristic – then they invite public contempt and
distrust. It’s not how democracy is supposed to work.