Exclusive: Green Party push to return private land under Tiriti settlements

By Rukuwai Tipene-Allen

The Green Party wants the purchase and return of private land to Māori on the government’s agenda. 

A discussion document released exclusively to Te Ao Māori News shows the Greens want a reversal of the law (1993 Waitangi Tribunal Amendment Act) that stopped the Waitangi Tribunal making recommendations for private land purchases as part of treaty settlements. The document also suggests removing the 'full and final' nature of tiriti settlements.

Land back

In the discussion document entitled, Hoki Whenua Mai the Greens table four areas for reform:

  1. An inquiry into the dispossession of whenua;
  2. Revisiting settlements for the adequacy of redress;
  3. Additional redress at the level of whānau, hapū and Māori collectives, outside the Treaty settlement process; and
  4. Enabling the crown to return land that is not owned by the Crown. 

Central to the document is reinstating the power of the tribunal to recommend the government buy private land; a power removed by the fourth National government (1990-1999) in 1993.

Greens co-leader, Marama Davidson acknowledges the work being done by the tribunal but believes it's being hampered by the legislative restrictions. 

"Reinstating this ability would allow for Crown acquisition of dispossessed whenua, for subsequent transfer" she says.

The document also seeks to do away with settlements being 'full and final'.

Davidson says "the treaty settlements process has not been full and should not be final".

While the party leader admits that the return of private land could ruffle a few feathers in Parliament, she says there are many non-Māori New Zealanders who want to be part of the change and redress. She said tangata tiriti want to be good allies and this document gives them a space to do so. 

"Returning whenua to tangata whenua is the right thing to do."

The document's authors also argue that while first right of refusal has been a mechanism used by the Crown, it can be difficult for Māori to be in a position to buy the land. 

"We recognise the limitations of this option, as it requires iwi, hapu and whanau to spend money purchasing land that was wrongfully taken from them initially. On principle, tāngata whenua should not have to buy back land that was stolen from them — it should be returned by the Crown."

Political will 

Davidson argues, "We have a role to put it on the political agenda to support the people pressure and the people movement to get change".

"The solutions that we are proposing and putting on the table offer a direct resolution to making a start to restoring the current land ownership injustice."

The document is also explicit in describing the Crown's failure in upholding the treaty: "The failure of the Treaty settlement process to provide full redress is primarily due to it being designed and controlled by the Crown itself. Pākehā political considerations, particularly costs to the Crown, are considered more important than fixing the underlying deep wrong of wresting land, wealth, and power from Maori for the benefit of the Crown and colonial settlers. This demonstrates a lack of willingness to fully face up to the wrongs of land dispossession. In this way, the Treaty settlements process is as much a legacy of ongoing colonisation as it is a tool of decolonisation."

Between 1985 and 2020, $2.9 billion was the total spend on settlements, less than 1% of loss suffered. In contrast, $1.77b was spent repaying investors back after the government's retail deposit guarantee scheme failed.

"The amount we have spent on treaty claims is miniscule for the entire treaty claims compared to what we spend all the time and we only need to look at Air NZ's bailout" Davidson says.

Land loss

Davidson acknowledges the policy recommendations might ruffle political feathers but says the changes pale in comparison to legislated whenua confiscations since Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed and before. In 1840 Māori owned almost all the land in Aotearoa, however laws including the New Zealand Settlement Act 1863 and the Native lands Rating Act in 1882 transferred millions of acres of Māori land to Crown ownership.

Just 25 years after the signing of te tiriti, 99% of the South Island and Stewart Island for example was taken by the New Zealand Company; by 1940 just 5% of Aotearoa's total land remained in Māori title. 

Land was also taken for public works, such as schools, roads and railways - although much of it has not been returned despite the original purpose being completed or abandoned.

"Through colonisation, and for far too long, te tiriti has not been honoured and mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga have not been upheld," Davidson says. 

A resilient people

"The impacts of being without land have been intergenerational, and have been incredibly harmful," Davidson says.

"Generations of Māori' have fought to protect 'the little that is left' and have worked tirelessly to rebuild whānau, hapū and iwi from the effects of colonisation," Davidson says, but the legislative mechanisms need to be revisited to make things easier and fairer for tangata whenua to seek redress.

"Whānau have sometimes been forced to fundraise to buy back their dispossessed whenua but they should not have to. Given that it is colonisation and the Crown’s dispossession of whenua that has resulted in the runaway property market, and stolen the financial means for tāngata whenua to be able to reacquire their whenua, it is the Crown who should be providing for the restitution of whenua."

"It is the movement, it is the power of people that can make those changes," Davidson says.

The Greens' proposal will be tabled when Parliament reconvenes this week.