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 be bruised.
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.