How splashing in the sea can take us to the future

This is how MMP works: the government seeks out supporters for legislation and, if necessary, adjusts the legislation to secure support. The Foreshore and Seabed Bill is a prime example.

If the Labour party had a majority, as in the old days, it could ram through whatever it decided, subject to its desire to keep the Maori seats and its need to hold the non-Maori middle ground.

Instead, the bill as it stands has a fair amount of middle-ground backing, at least in Parliament (though it has far to travel yet).

There is only a four-vote majority. But set that within the span of opinion:

* Tariana Turia, Nanaia Mahuta and Georgina Beyer are the voice of tribal anger. The anger is real and justified because the government is confiscating property rights. Their voice is needed in Parliament.

* The Greens (eight seats) are close to the tribal position but would want any title granted to be a “collective title”, unable to be freeholded or subdivided.

* Labour and Progressive (54 seats minus the three Maori rebels) back the bill: that is, confiscation of the property rights so the majority keeps time-hallowed access to beaches and the sea but also active preservation of use rights as they were at 1840, with a veto on other activity which might substantially impinge on those rights.

* New Zealand First (13 seats) goes along with that, after adjustments to ensure other communal use rights (if any) can be recognised and to tidy up some legal processes. New Zealand First’s leader, remember, is Maori and there are five other Maori among its 13 MPs.

* United Future (eight seats) backs the bill but wants “public domain” in as a backstop to stop any future government selling foreshore/seabed or giving it to tribes as “redress” or settlement of grievances.

* National (27 seats) backs the confiscation but won’t recognise use rights, especially the veto dimension.

* ACT (eight seats, plus Donna Awatere-Huata in lockstep) backs tribes’ right to take cases to the Maori Land Court but also wants the Te Ture Whenua Act amended so foreshore and seabed are not land.

Given that configuration, Labour plus New Zealand First plus, almost, United Future — 72 seats all up — sounds fairly close to a middle-ground position, especially given National backs confiscation.

It certainly has a wider mandate than would a single-party government bill whipped through the House — though of course it falls far short of the sort of Labour-National consensus which is really needed if this nation is to be in full health.

What, in effect, does the bill amount to?

* The majority gets its way: the foreshore and seabed are to be in public ownership. All up, 99 or 108 MPs (depending where you put ACT) agree on that.

* Minority rights are protected up to a point — a considerable point, though Maori grieving over or angry at the confiscation can’t see the good in that yet. All up, 84 MPs (National and ACT excluded) back that.

Maori leaders now need to confront the fact of life in those two calculations.

They could do worse than listen carefully to Tahu Potiki, chief executive of Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu, at 36 a rising star among Maori and a man rooted deep in tribal tradition (he carries the name of his tribe’s progenitor) and the modern world.

Legislation, such as the Local Government Act and the Resource Management Act, which require authorities to consult Maori, Potiki says, “were welcome relief to a Maori people who perceived themselves as besieged and separated from the mainstream of power.

“It allows them a semblance of representation and provides them a voice. But in reality it continues to marginalise them to the periphery. Their opinion is considered and then the real decisions are made by someone else.”

Then Potiki adds, tellingly:

“Maori can retreat to the cultural high ground and protest, knowing that the ultimate responsibility to consider all the competing interests lies elsewhere.

“When a question of national importance is put before the country’s decision-makers Maori are not forced to balance all the stakeholder issues against their own cultural concerns. Maori are left throwing stones at the behemoth.”

The behemoth has given as much to Maori as it is going to on the foreshore. So where now in general Maori policy?

Potiki wants “a sensible policy framework that places less emphasis on grievance and more on creating a new type of fully integrated iwi citizen: a citizen who has a tangible stake in the primary resource sector and in the essential infrastructure.

“Only when Maori truly perceive themselves to be participants in this nation�s power dialogue will they be forced to weigh up the cultural and environmental trade-offs against the national priorities and will the question of sacred sites and taniwha be tackled in new and innovative ways.”

Potiki heads the most successful tribe. He sets a tough challenge, to which there is no answer yet. The foreshore bill’s opponents, left and right, might usefully ponder his words.