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Lake of shame

A supposed symbol of co-operation between the races is instead provoking acts of violence, polarising politicians and horrifying environmentalists.

Phil Taueki, a former accountant and the self-appointed kaitiaki of Lake Horowhenua
Phil Taueki, a former accountant and the self-appointed kaitiaki of Lake Horowhenua. Photo/David White.

Update 26/02/14: Lake Horowhenua, labelled the “lake of shame” in this Listener cover story last year, is to get a $1.27 million cleanup. The project, jointly funded by the government, Horowhenua District Council, Horizons Regional Council and the private sector, will attempt to reverse the environmental damage done by decades of neglect. Long regarded as an environmental disgrace, the lake near Levin is owned by local Maori but controlled by a government-appointed board. Last February’s Listener article identified raw sewage, stormwater and runoff from dairy farms and market gardens as contributing to water so toxic that one scientist said it could be lethal if swallowed by a small child. Press statements announcing the cleanup made no mention of the role of protester Phil Taueki, whose 10-year occupation of a lakeside domain helped draw public attention to the lake’s condition. Environment Minister Amy Adams’ press statement can be seen here.

The story below was first published on the 22nd of February, 2013.

The plaque at the entrance to the Lake Horowhenua Domain expresses a noble sentiment. The domain, it declares, has been “developed jointly by the Maori and European people of the Horowhenua as a visible symbol of the co-operation and brotherhood between the races and is for the use and enjoyment of all”.

But even the most optimistic intentions can turn sour. In recent years, this supposed symbol of co-operation and brotherhood has provoked assaults, arrests, acts of sabotage and claims of intimidation. It has polarised local civic leaders, vexed the judiciary, appalled environmentalists and set Maori against Maori.

If there were a competition to find New Zealand’s most conflict-prone body of water, Lake Horowhenua would be a runaway winner. Those of a superstitious disposition could be excused for thinking a curse lingers from the 1820s, when Te Rauparaha’s invading Ngati Toa warriors exterminated the lake’s Muaupoko defenders and left the water stained with their blood.

At first glance, the lake looks pretty. Set in coastal sand dune country immediately west of Levin, just beyond the built-up area, it’s surrounded by gently undulating farmland that was once covered in dense podocarp forest – kahikatea, totara, matai – that reached all the way inland to the Tararua Range.

It’s relatively small (2.9sq km) and shallow; most of it is only 2m deep or less. Flax and willows grow on the lake’s margins and a variety of waterbirds – ducks, swans, Canada geese, shags – congregate on its waters.

It’s only up close that Lake Horowhenua looks less inviting. Scum and slime cover the rocks at the water’s edge and the snot-coloured water is clouded by suspended sediment.

It is, by common consent, an environmental disgrace. In terms of water quality, the Ministry for the Environment rates it 107th out of 114 New Zealand lakes. In February last year, Niwa freshwater scientist Max Gibbs shocked Horizons Regional Council members by telling them that in certain conditions, the water was toxic enough to be lethal if swallowed by a small child.

In a report for Horizons, Gibbs said the water quality was very poor and declining as a result of increasing nutrient and sediment loads. Nutrients from 25 years of sewage discharge, which ended in 1987, had accumulated in the lake sediment and were a major cause of the lake becoming hypertrophic (excessively enriched with nutrients). Even today, sewage is released whenever a nearby pumping station is overloaded.

Fertiliser and manure leaches into the lake from surrounding farms and market gardens – a problem exacerbated, according to Gibbs, by intensified dairy farming – and stormwater is discharged from the unsightly Queen St drain that runs east-west across Levin (population: 20,000).

Algal blooms, caused by potentially dangerous cyanobacteria, are commonplace and the lake is choked with weed. When the weed dies off in summer, it decomposes on the lake bed, depleting the water of oxygen and creating a condition known as anoxia.

In the 1950s, a weir was built on the lake’s only outlet, Hokio Stream, so that the water level could be controlled. The effect was twofold: the lake became a giant sediment trap – activist Phil Taueki describes it as like putting a plug in a dirty bath – and the weir blocked the passage of fish such as flounder, mullet and whitebait, which spend part of their life cycle at sea.

According to Gibbs, sediment from sewage discharge and farm runoff now accounts for half the lake’s original volume. It has smothered the original lake bed to the extent that kakahi – freshwater mussels – drown in the mud. Once a food basket for the Muaupoko iwi, rich in eels, flounder, whitebait, koura and kakahi, the lake is now home to introduced goldfish and perch.

The deterioration in water quality appears to have gone unchecked for decades. Gibbs calculates that without management intervention, it will take Lake Horowhenua up to 100 years to recover.


Taueki, the self-appointed kaitiaki (guardian) of the lake, is regarded by many Levin locals, including some Maori, as a pest; even as mad and dangerous. Horowhenua Mayor Brendan Duffy says people are scared to visit the lake for fear of being harassed or threatened by him.

But although Taueki may have alienated much of the local population (or alienated himself, as Duffy prefers to put it), it’s hard to escape the conclusion that both the lake and its Maori owners have been treated shabbily over many decades. And there’s no doubting Taueki’s disgust is genuine when he talks about official neglect of the 2000-strong Muaupoko tribe’s most prized taonga – the sacred site where their ancestors, slain in battle by Te Rauparaha, lie on the lake bed.

Several hundred members of the tribe are thought to have died defending their territory, although as Taueki says, “We may have been decimated numbers-wise, but we’re still sitting here on our land. That’s the main thing.”

A qualified accountant who spent years working in Britain (British Telecom, British Gas, the Financial Times) before being seized by a desire to come home and work for his iwi, Taueki, 53, is a direct descendant of the chief who signed the Treaty of Waitangi on behalf of the Muaupoko.

Lake Horowhenua
Photo/David White

Since 2004, he has been living at the domain – “squatting”, says Duffy – in a building formerly used as a plant nursery, which he shares with two amiable dogs and two cats. Since his savings ran out, he has been living on an unemployment benefit.

The building is in a poor state of repair but is kept tidy. A big desk dominates the living space, much of which is taken up with files documenting his battles with authority. Out the front, there’s a big sign saying “Wahi tapu – keep out” and a bench where Taueki sits in the sun and smokes roll-your-owns.

A polarising, confrontational figure, Taueki has repeatedly been arrested, held overnight in police cells and subjected to trespass and anti-harassment notices. Opponents have tried unsuccessfully to evict him and he claims to have received death threats.

Though articulate, intelligent and unthreatening one-on-one, albeit with a penchant for the F-word when he gets agitated, Taueki is often abusive and antagonistic when confronted by members of the rowing and sailing clubs that for decades have operated from buildings on the lake domain. Last October, viewers of TVNZ’s Close Up saw amateur video footage of him hurling expletive-laden abuse at kayakers, one of whom he was charged with assaulting (the charge was later quashed).

On that same programme, Taueki’s nephew – a member of the rowing club – made a direct, emotive appeal to his uncle to stop harassing lake users. He is seen as a lone wolf, an impression not helped by his frequent references to “my lake” and “my land”.

Many locals suspect Taueki of being responsible for an estimated $100,000 worth of damage in the rowing club building – a building he says has no right to be there – but he has denied responsibility. More recently, he has suffered from vandalism himself, having returned home from a night in the police cells – the result of another altercation with rowers – to find every panel on his car had been damaged and its headlights and windows smashed.

Taueki’s partner, Anne Hunt, accuses the police of being partisan in their treatment of him. Whenever there’s a confrontation, she says, it’s Taueki who ends up being arrested.


The two protagonists in this conflict, the activist and the mayor, are such a study in contrasts they could have been created by a scriptwriter: one the Pakeha son of a local farmer (Duffy grew up near the lake and has fond memories of rafting and jetboat races on it in his youth), now a prosperous business owner and a 17-year council veteran, well-versed in the ways of local government; the other an angry, defiant Maori underdog, at odds with authority and seemingly oblivious to the benefits of networking and diplomacy.

Duffy, who takes great pride in his council’s “brilliant” relationship with local Maori, insists Taueki has no support from the wider community. On Waitangi Day, he says, Taueki set up a protest at celebrations organised by the Muaupoko iwi organisation and was ignored.

“Go out into the street and ask a hundred people, and I guarantee 99% will say Phil Taueki is mad.”

To get the flavour of Taueki’s provocative rhetoric, consider his description of the Muaupoko Tribal Authority (MTA), the organisation recognised by the Crown as representing his iwi. Taueki, whose sister Vivienne leads a separate tribal grouping called the Muaupoko Co-operative Society, describes the MTA as kupapas – a derogatory term used to describe Maori collaborators during the Land Wars. It’s a word he uses often to describe any Maori not on his side. “Duffy gives them a ring and they’re around kissing his backside,” he says of the MTA. “They really disgust me.”

Lake Horowhenua in the early 1900s
Lake Horowhenua in the early 1900s /Alexander Turnbull Library.

But while Taueki’s relationship with other Muaupoko is strained and he acknowledges his activism has caused tension even within his immediate family, he does have supporters – notably Vivienne, who is a member of the board of trustees that represents the lake’s Maori owners, and Hunt.

Taking on authority is nothing new to Hunt. In 2007, the former journalist emerged victorious after years of litigation over a book she had written about a case of alleged sexual abuse.

What makes her relationship with Taueki politically charged is that Hunt is a Horowhenua district councillor who has twice challenged Duffy for the mayoralty, on both occasions coming within a few hundred votes of unseating the three-term incumbent. Never warm, the relationship between the prickly mayor and his rebellious councillor is said to have grown even frostier as a result of her involvement with Taueki.


Behind all this conflict lies a tortuous history that stretches back more than a century. By common consent, Lake Horowhenua belongs to the Muaupoko iwi. Ownership is undisputed. But in 1905 an Act of Parliament declared the lake a public recreation reserve and placed management and control in the hands of a domain board appointed by the Government – on the face of it, a blatant usurping of property rights.

As Taueki puts it, “It’s like being given the title to your house and then being told that a committee appointed by the Crown is going to manage it.”

An uneasy balance seems to have existed ever since between the legal rights of the Maori owners and those of the public, especially the clubs that use the domain.

The dichotomy was perpetuated in a 1956 Act declaring that notwithstanding Maori ownership, the public was to have free right of access to the domain. The definition of “domain” included the surface waters of the lake – and although the Maori owners were guaranteed free and unrestricted use, the Act stipulated that this should not interfere with “the reasonable rights of the public, as may be determined by the domain board”.

Even Duffy, who sits on the domain board, acknowledges it’s an unusual arrangement and “mind-bogglingly difficult” to manage. An example is that when Horizons Regional Council recently wanted to place a buoy in the lake to monitor water quality (something done only sporadically in the past), it had to get permission from the domain board to float it and a separate consent from the Maori trustees of the lake to anchor the buoy to the lake bed.

Yet though the unusual governance arrangements are a core part of the problem, Taueki insists his fight isn’t with public recreational users of the lake, provided they treat it with respect. Rather, his complaint is that the Maori owners have had to stand by impotently while the degradation of the lake continued unchecked – and while those in a position to arrest the deterioration looked the other way.

Lake Horowhenua as painted in 1875
Lake Horowhenua as painted in 1875/JC Hoyte

He’s particularly scathing about Duffy, whom he accuses of wanting to protect his “farmer mates”.

The domain board, according to Taueki, has never acted to protect the lake and doesn’t even bother to enforce its own rules. “The board never opposed the lowering of the lake [in the 1920s], the discharge of sewage, the discharge of stormwater or runoff from farms. They have never dealt with that side of their duties. All they have done is make sure their mates can come down here and do what they like.”

The board is chaired by an official from the Department of Conservation and is supposed to include four members appointed on the recommendation of the Muaupoko iwi. But to complicate matters, disputes over iwi representation – resolved only recently – meant the board ceased to function for several years.

Despite that, the leases of the rowing and sailing clubs, whose right to occupy domain land is challenged by Taueki, continued to be renewed.

Those leases are a central source of friction. Other clubs use the domain without objection from Taueki, but he alleges the rowing and sailing clubs have no right to be where they are. Land records are vague, and even Duffy concedes there are “technical issues” in relation to the clubs’ physical location. But he adds: “That should not be an impediment to people’s enjoyment of an asset in the 21st century. Nor am I aware of any strongly held view by the 1600 [Maori] owners that there is an issue.”

Muaupoko’s apparent lack of influence over Lake Horowhenua stands in sharp contrast to the control exercised by a more powerful iwi over another lake 200km north. The Tuwharetoa Maori Trust Board, representing the owners of Lake Taupo, receives $1.5 million annually from the Crown and a share of fishing licence fees. The board has the right to license all commercial users of the lake and recently proposed a levy, reportedly of $40 a head, on entrants in the Lake Taupo Ironman contest.


Taueki’s conflict with the rowing and sailing clubs is exacerbated by his claim that the clubs repeatedly contravene the domain board’s own bylaws, particularly those relating to the use of power boats.

Since the 1950s, the lake owners have raised objections to motor-powered boats because of the noise, the risk of pollution and the churning up of the water under which their ancestors lie. Accordingly, power boats are allowed on the lake only in specific circumstances and with express approval from the board – a requirement flouted for so long, according to Taueki, that many club members are not even aware of it.

When in 2008 he challenged sailing club members who were about to launch a power boat that was to be used as a rescue boat for a regatta, scuffles broke out and he ended up facing three charges of assault. The district court heard there was anger and abuse on both sides, including the use of the words “this Maori bastard has just kicked me” by a sailing club member.

That incident may yet have far-reaching consequences. Taueki was found guilty on two charges but appealed against one of those convictions on the grounds that he was entitled to use reasonable force against trespassers on land of which he was in “peaceable possession” – a defence under the Crimes Act.

The Court of Appeal didn’t accept the argument but the Supreme Court has agreed to consider a further appeal, which is set down for a hearing later this month. And this time Taueki, who has often represented himself, will be wheeling in a big gun in the person of Professor Gerard McCoy QC, a distinguished expatriate New Zealand lawyer now based in Hong Kong.

The Listener was told that McCoy, a former University of Canterbury academic, will be flying back at his own expense and will take the case pro bono. Legal argument is likely to centre on the peaceable-possession defence
– which McCoy lectured on at Canterbury
– and Taueki’s right, as tangata whenua, to take action against people he regarded as trespassers. The outcome will be awaited with interest by the legal commentariat.

Brendan Duffy
Brendan Duffy: people are scared to visit the lake for fear of being harassed or threatened. Photo/David White.


Although he has no mandate, even from his own iwi, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that through sheer nuisance value and adverse publicity, Taueki has nudged the authorities that control the lake into finally taking action to restore it to health.

That is apparent from a proposed accord between parties Duffy describes as the “key influencers” – the domain board, the Maori board of trustees, Horizons, Horowhenua District Council and DoC. Sir Wira Gardiner, a former soldier and top public servant with a reputation as a public-sector Mr Fixit, has been engaged to supervise the process, which is aimed at reaching agreement on remedial measures based on recommendations in the Gibbs report.

Duffy says it is common ground that the lake is in bad shape. He attributes past inaction to a “dysfunctional” board of trustees without whose approval no progress could be made.

As a result of elections ratified by the Maori Land Court, the board of trustees is now functioning again and Duffy says the way is clear to proceed with the accord, which he claims to have initiated.

Some proposals for improving the lake’s water quality – such as providing nesting boxes for birds that will prey on introduced fish – are relatively cheap and straightforward, according to Duffy. But he acknowledges that other measures will come with big price tags, possibly running into millions.

Rural runoff is a huge issue, he says. “I absolutely accept that in the rural community there are some challenges around this. But this is a collective community issue and everyone is going to have to make a stand.”

The Tauekis, perhaps predictably, are sceptical. Vivienne Taueki says an accord was proposed in 1989 and came to nothing. Her brother describes the proposed accord as window dressing and accuses Duffy of not wanting to be honest with ratepayers about the true cost of a cleanup.

Characteristically, Phil Taueki has signalled his rejection of the accord process by sending offensive emails to Gardiner. The Listener has been shown one such email (though not by Gardiner), and the language is highly abrasive. But the former head of the Ministry of Maori Development has some sympathy for Taueki’s stance and says he doesn’t take the abuse personally.

Gardiner agrees the lake has a shameful history but says it’s not helpful to waste time apportioning blame for what has happened in the past. He is firmly focused on the objective of cleaning up the lake – a big task after “decades and decades of mess” but not technically impossible.

He does add, however, that it would be easier if human beings weren’t in the way.

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