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To deal with Ihumātao, Jacinda Ardern must heed lessons from history

Protesters at Ihumātao on July 25, 2019. Photo/Getty Images

The situation at Ihumātao and the Ōtuataua Stonefields reserve is a like déjà vu all over again, writes Bill Ralston.

If you stay in much the same place for long enough, you discover what goes around comes around again, déjà vu fashion.

A short history lesson. On May 25, 1978, as an aspiring young journalist, I stood on Bastion Point and watched 800 police and army personnel forcibly remove Māori occupiers, demolish buildings, destroy their gardens and arrest 220 people. It was an incredibly sad and moving sight.

A decade later, the government returned the land to Ngati Whatua, paying them compensation in a Treaty of Waitangi settlement. In 1886, the Government had appropriated the land under the Public Works Act and, in the 1940s, when it didn’t need it any more, gave it to the Auckland City Council instead of returning it to its original Māori owners. Hence, the ensuing decades-long struggle by Māori to get it back, and the occupation that was so brutally overcome.

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Flash forward a few more decades and we have Ihumātao, not far from Auckland Airport, bordering the Ōtuataua Stonefields reserve, which displays evidence of Māori habitation dating back to the 14th century. As the Land Wars began to heat up in 1863, the government booted Māori off the land and soon sold it to a settler family, the Wallaces, who kept Ihumātao until 2016, when Fletcher Residential acquired the site for a housing development. In short, the government originally nicked the land from the iwi who had lived there for several centuries, and even when it came up for sale after a century and a half, made no move to return it.

Late last month, police moved in and forced protesters back from the land they were occupying, but they continue to try to blockade Ihumātao. As baseball player Yogi Berra reportedly once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

The situation is complicated by the fact that Fletchers has freed up some of the land for housing development by the iwi but younger protesters oppose that deal, wanting the full return of Ihumātao. Fletchers, caught in the middle, says it would consider a sale to anyone who offered it a fair price.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in my opinion looking a little like a possum caught in the headlights, held a press conference and announced a halt to any further development until the two Māori groups, Fletchers and the Government could come to an agreement on how to proceed. The chances of that are slim indeed.

Another short history lesson. In 2004, Prime Minister Helen Clark made a rare misstep: she headed off a Treaty claim by vesting in the Crown the seabed and foreshore of New Zealand. That resulted in the birth of the Māori Party and the subsequent loss of Labour seats in Parliament which, only now, have returned to Labour. Ardern needs to show better leadership on this issue if she is to avoid a similar debacle for Labour in 2020. The simplest settlement would be for the Government to buy the land from Fletchers and return it to some mutually agreed Māori-ownership trust. The Māori owners can then decide themselves whether they want to develop the land and build houses or not.

Forget arguments about Treaty precedents it might or might not set. This is the only way out for the Government, which, after all, stole the land in the first place. It would save us all a lot of heartbreak and angst.

This article was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.