Labour’s Māori caucus is pushing for creative solutions to the Ihumātao dispute, but the Finance Minister says the complex issue may take some time to solve. Laura Walters reports
Labour’s Māori caucus want the Ihumātao dispute settled by the end of the year, as they face increasing pressure from mana whenua.
However, Finance Minister Grant Robertson – the one facilitating discussions between mana whenua and Fletcher Building – said it was unwise to put a timeline on such a complex issue.
Labour Māori caucus co-chair Willie Jackson confirmed discussions were underway for Auckland Council to buy the disputed Ihumātao land, with the help of a loan from the Crown.
Earlier on Tuesday, RNZ reported the Crown was considering loaning the money to the council so it could purchase the land from Fletcher Building’s Fletcher Residential unit.
RNZ reported Fletcher Building’s asking price was $40 million – more than double the $19m it paid for the property in 2014. However, Finance Minister Grant Robertson would not confirm this, and continued to refer to the media reports as “speculation”.
Jackson said he, and other Labour Māori caucus members, wanted this dispute – now running for three years – wrapped up before election year.
In recent weeks, protestors have marched on the electorate offices of both Jackson and his colleague Peeni Henare.
“We understand completely how emotional some of our people are out there.”
“We’re approaching this on the principles of being able to come up with a solution that everyone can live with, that doesn’t set unfortunate precdents, that recognises mana whenua, but also recognises Fletchers.
Labour Māori caucus member, and Tāmaki Makaurau MP, Peeni Henare said Auckland Council had always been involved in the discussions regarding Ihumātao, but he would not talk about any proposed solutions.
On Tuesday, all politicians who had been involved with the dispute said whatever solution was reached, they needed to be sure it didn’t set a precedent for re-litigating Treaty claims or settlements.
“One of the things we’ve been wary of all the way through, is any precedents happening in that regard. So we have to be very very careful,” Jackson said.
There was suggestion that a loan to Auckland Council to buy the land may present less risk than a Crown loan to Kīngitanga, however, those involved in the discussions would not elaborate on the potential risks associated with the different proposals.
Robertson reiterated precedent was one of the key issues.
“We’re approaching this on the principles of being able to come up with a solution that everyone can live with, that doesn’t set unfortunate precedents, that recognises mana whenua, but also recognises Fletcher’s. So you can imagine, it’s quite a complex endeavour, but we’re working to facilitate a good outcome,” he said.
Robertson met with Fletcher’s chief executive Ross Taylor on Tuesday, and they discussed Ihumātao at a high-level, but did not get into specifics around proposed solutions.
The pair did not discuss a possible loan from the Crown, to Auckland Council, to buy back the land.
Robertson said this meeting with Taylor was not the forum for that type of discussion of specifics.
Fletcher Building declined to comment.
“This has come as a surprise and could potentially put the whenua out of reach of mana whenua who are awaiting its return.”
While none of Tuesday’s discussions would be news to Fletcher, it seemed this potential proposal was a surprise to Kīngitanga.
The Māori King Movement issued a press release saying Kīngi Tuuheitia Pootatau Te Wherowhero VII had cautioned the Government against any moves that would further alienate mana whenua from Ihumātao.
“This has come as a surprise and could potentially put the whenua out of reach of mana whenua who are awaiting its return,” Kīngitanga spokesperson Rahui Papa said.
Council’s involvement was not the ‘by Māori for Māori’ solution they had envisaged, he said.
While everyone agreed the issue was complex, and it was important not to set precedent to re-open Treaty claims, no-one was able to give specific examples of where they believed a similar dispute could arise.
National deputy leader Paula Bennett said the Government should have stayed out of the dispute.
Iwi lawyers would be writing up the next stage of opening up all treaty settlements, she said, but refused to name any other specific claims or settlements she believed could cause an issue because she did not want to “put suggestions in people’s minds”.
“It sends a message that if you’re not quite happy, then just go and sit on land for a long time and the taxpayer will bail it out.”
National Party Treaty negotiations spokesperson Jo Hayes said she believed a small part of the land could be kept as a reserve, but the rest needed to be used for housing.
Hayes also raised concerns around precedent, but again was unable to point to any specific claims or settlements she believed would open up if the land was bought and returned to mana whenua.
Meanwhile, in a statement, National leader Simon Bridges said a $40m payment from the Crown would open up full and final Treaty settlements.
“Iwi lawyers will be writing their statements of claim for the court as we speak and protestors will be looking for their next site.
“This is an appalling use of taxpayers’ money and the Government needs to rule it out… This shows a complete disregard for private property rights.
While Bridges said the Prime Minister should have never become involved, others have criticised her for refusing to visit Ihumātao.
Jacinda Ardern has maintained she would not travel to the site until the dispute was resolved. She was called out for this decision by New Zealand musician Tom Scott – from Homebrew and Avantdale Bowling Club – during his best album acceptance speech at the New Zealand Music Awards last weekend.
Longstanding dispute comes to a head
Ihumātao is located next to the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve in Māngere – home to New Zealand’s earliest market gardens and a significant archaeological site on land considered sacred by local hapū and iwi.
Fletcher Building bought the land in 2014, for $19m, which was above its rateable value.
In the same year, 32 hectares adjacent to the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve was designated as a Special Housing Area (SHA).
Not long after, Save Our Unique Landscape or SOUL raised concerns about the plans for a housing development, and began occupying the land.
In 2016, the land was transferred to Fletcher Residential with the plan to build 480 houses at the site.
Earlier this year, the protest occupation increased and protesters swelled in numbers. Things came to a head in July, and the Prime Minister announced building works would be halted, while a solution was found.