Take the number 24 bus to Miramar and you’ll encounter a strange sight – a dilapidated prison with tall cack-yellow walls sprouting rings of razor wire. It stands on an empty hilltop with some of the best harbour views in Wellington. Around it, as dusk gathers, dark pine trees sway.

As night falls, lights illuminate the building’s odd little doorway. Through this, for 90 years, passed society’s wrongdoers. Crims. One of them was my standard four teacher, Mr Douglas, convicted of luring boys to his home and sexually abusing them. Back then this was called ‘interfering’.

It’s been over a decade since the doors swung shut on Mt Crawford jail for the last time. In 2011 Christopher Finlayson, then-minister of culture and heritage, stood outside and announced the area around it, flowing down a hillside to the northern end of Miramar Peninsula, would be transformed into a regional park.

“A 76-hectare reserve is planned for the peninsula, including walkways, museums and the restoration of a historical fort,” confirmed the mayor, Celia Wade-Brown.

Finlayson was even more fulsome. The peninsula would be “a distinctive national destination … a place for visiting our military history and the history of the early iwi of the area”.

In 2019, Andy Foster announced that the Government had budgeted $4 million over four years for the project. Three years later, not a single pa site has been unearthed nor military installation restored. By 2020 plans had changed. Now there were to be 300 houses built on the prison site and beyond. The lucky homeowners would no doubt be captivated by the sweeping harbour views. The development would be a partnership between the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust. It was this trust that had controversially sold prime waterfront land at Shelly Bay down the hill to developer Ian Cassels at a knockdown price, after acquiring it in a Treaty settlement in 2009.

Read more:
► The long, sorry saga of Shelly Bay

Enter Mau Whenua, a breakaway group that describes itself as “a collective of Taranaki Whānui iwi members”. Mau Whenua is implacably opposed to both developments: the one on the prison site and the one at Shelly Bay. It claims the Shelly Bay sale was a shady sidestep around the Trust’s own rules. This was to be tested in the High Court until Peter Jackson, claiming hard times, withdrew financial support. In a 2020 review for the Māori Land Court, Sir Wiri Gardiner came to the same conclusion as Mau Whenua. In essence, the Trust’s processes for registering members were defective and many, perhaps most, of the iwi had not had the chance to vote on the sale. A judge of the Māori Land Court is now deciding whether to hear the case.

Cassels’ Wellington Company isn’t waiting to hear the result. It has fenced off Shelly Bay and started to tear down the remnants of military history. In their place it plans to erect a modern colonial settlement – over 300 high-rise apartments and houses, a boutique hotel, a brewery, perhaps even a retirement village. Despite the Wellington City Council’s newfound commitment to prioritising new housing on public transport routes, the settlement will be reliant on cars. The inadequate road will be subject to sea-level rise and during the 13 or more years of construction will be a hazardous, perhaps even impassable, route for the many Wellingtonians who walk, cycle, swim, fish, picnic, kayak and boat on the peninsula.

Meanwhile, since the Trust sold the land in 2017, New Zealand has changed. What a difference five years and a pandemic make. Aotearoa has come into common usage as the rightful name of this country. RNZ and TVNZ both routinely use the Māori names of cities. Ashley Bloomfield brought the word motu into our living rooms. Record numbers of Aotearoans have learnt or are learning te reo. From the beginning of next year, the country’s history, including war and land grabs, will be taught in our schools. The film Whina, on the 1975 land march of Whina Cooper and Te Rōpū Matakite (Those with foresight), is alerting a new generation to the colonists’ cruel and illegal seizure of Māori whenua.

All this adds up to Aotearoa becoming a country where the history, culture, customs and land rights of Māori are honoured, right? Wrong. Forty-seven years after the Land March, 44 years after the occupations of the Raglan golf course and Bastion Point, two years after Ihumātao, there is still Shelly Bay/Marukaikuru, still the tired old attempts to downplay the centuries-long occupation of the place by Māori, and the continued and wilful ignorance of history. This includes, for example, that around 100 Taranaki men, inspired by Parihaka’s Te Whiti and arrested for trying to protect their tribal land, were forced to labour in the construction of defence installations. They built a large section of the road, and that those who died are buried there, their spirits permeating the land. There is still the tokenism, with the developer said to be offering a site for a marae. Still the refusal to hear alternative plans, including the proposal of Te Whataitai Design Collective for a heritage park centred on Shelly Bay, with restoration of historic buildings, a centre for iwi history and reforestation with native trees – a place of national pride in one of the capital city’s most glorious landscapes.

Is it time for the Government and the council to buy back this land and use it to benefit all the people of Te Whanganui-a-Tara – and Aotearoa?

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