Just where are Cullen's Treaty deals taking us?

Treaty of Waitangi settlements are now at a gallop. Will they be cheap at the price?

In the mid-1990s Ruth Richardson put a $1 billion cap on settlements (the Air New Zealand bailout cost nearly that). Under Michael Cullen settlements may be heading to twice that or more.

Afer the Ngai Tahu, Tainui and fisheries settlements in the 1990s settlements came slowly and sporadically in the 2000s.

Why? Margaret Wilson insisted as minister on broadly mandated negotiating partners. There were complexities and intertribal jealousies, notably in the central North Island and Northland. The Office of Treaty Settlements adopted a “tick-the-box” approach, which in some cases excluded cross-claims, leading last year to Waitangi Tribunal condemnation of the Ngati Whatua arrangements. There was not a “rangatira-to-rangatira” dimension to inject the requisite mana from the government side.

Cullen, Deputy Prime Minister and minister of everything that matters when it really matters, has recharged the process since he took over in October.

Cullen is rangatira. What he says goes in the cabinet on settlements. Iwi and hapu take his mana, and his agenda, seriously — as did Ngai Tahu when Jim Bolger as Prime Minister joined talks.

Cullen has a strong personal interest, for reasons of equity and justice. That’s the social democrat in him. One observer says he can get emotional about it, as did National’s chief negotiator, Sir Douglas Graham.

There is also a political imperative. The Maori party got its oxygen from the foreshore and seabed law which deprived iwi and hapu of the right to pursue claims through the courts after the Appeal Court said they could. Foreshore deals suck out some of that oxygen (though still leave plenty of other oxygen).

There is a political imperative for Maori. For all the deals National did or started in the 1990s and for all that shadow Treaty negotiations minister Chris Finlayson acted for Ngai Tahu, some in Maori circles fear National might not follow through if in office. Better a kereru in the kete than no kereru.

There is a policy imperative. The once-vaunted “water programme of action” has gone stagnant because of iwi and hapu claims to ownership of, or at least interest in, rivers and lake ownership and management. Water management, as the current worry about lake levels and electricity illustrates, is now a pressing issue.

And iwi land is an issue in the emissions trade scheme, particularly with reference to forests.

There is a legal imperative. Not to act will, the cabinet believes, lead to the courts eventually telling it to act, as happened over state-owned enterprises and fisheries two decades ago. That goes also for the content of agreements, which go well beyond previous deals. Canadian precedents are thought likely to be compelling at the Supreme Court.

On the iwi side there is now momentum. When Cullen showed he meant business with three heads of agreement late last year and the foreshore one with Ngati Porou in February, iwi and hapu began assessing the need to catch the waka before it gets too far out from shore.

There is another imperative: development. A rising breed of professional Maori looks not just to justice and history but beyond them to business development. Getting the assets and getting them working, this new breed thinks, will give more prospect of tino rangatiratanga — tribes in charge of their people’s future — than arguing fine points of rights.

The return of the central North Island forest land to iwi, for example, is a matter of mana, to be sure, but also a matter of money — future money in a carbon-constrained world and, officials think, lots of it.

Is this all good for the rest of New Zealand?

Cullen’s deals will trigger ratchet clauses for top-ups of earlier settlements. Elements of some agreements are not fully funded. Added up, they generate fiscal risk and uncertainty just when the economy can afford that less.

The foreshore agreements give iwi considerable influence over resource consents, which will cause friction. Environmental covenants that go with the agreements give iwi a say over long stretches of coastal waters — perhaps in time along the whole coastline.

Some iwi and hapu get ownership of and are to manage some of the conservation estate, which may need a law change. There is doubt about their capability to meet the quality of management the public expects from the Department of Conservation and as the law requires. There are fiscal and management issues for regional councils.

And there is no way back. If a new cabinet gets cold feet it will find it is locked in, ethically and practically, as the present cabinet is. The settlements are the price of peace.

But they are also this country’s future. Our language and culture are becoming more Pacific. Cullen’s settlements are getting more iwi into the economic game. They set a challenge to iwi to make Maori rich, so we can all be. Just possibly iwi will meet that challenge.