John Key's Easter curate's-egg for iwi

The Maori party will get the Foreshore and Seabed Act repealed. The National party must uphold English legal tradition. Each must look the other way a bit to do the deal.

The Maori party was formed in anger at the act, so repeal is critically symbolic to the party. The act’s confiscation was of a right to go to court, with limited prospects, not actual confiscation of land. But Maori felt it as a confiscation of land.

The National party, under Bill English’s leadership at the time, played the English common law card: Maori would own the beaches if the Appeal Court ruling stood and that would stop “Kiwis” having barbecues there.

National thereby made it politically impossible for Helen Clark’s government to work out the compromise now on the table. Labour would have gone out of office if it had let iwi bids drag slowly through the courts in the glare of National-abetted agitation.

National later underlined its ploy with then leader Don Brash’s Orewa “one-law” speech in 2004 and Steven Joyce’s divisive “Iwi/Kiwi” billboards in the 2005 election.

Even last August the party conference reflected some of that attitude when it excluded Wira Gardiner from the party’s board for power-play reasons, without thought of Maori reaction. Maori across a wide spectrum, including the few at the conference, took it as a slight.

So John Key has a lot to do and undo. He has set about that in a trademark National way which also is a trademark iwi way: rangatira to rangatira. Since before the 2008 election Key and Tuwharetoa have had a special and evolving relationship, confidential and trusting.

The iwi leadership group, formed by major iwi under Tuwharetoa’s chairing to deal with the Clark government over water, is the Maori vehicle. It deals with issues at high level and may set overarching guidelines but does not do specific deals or usurp individual iwi and hapu relationships with the government. It reports back to a yearly meeting of all iwi and, at times, to regional meetings.

This process has (at the risk of muddying the original idea) spawned other ad hoc iwi leadership groups — on climate change, where Ngai Tahu tried to corner the tree-planting concessions, whanau ora and the foreshore and seabed.

In addition, Key must attend to Maori party mana so it gets enough wins to offset its losses.

Key’s difficult Kiwi-iwi balance is reflected in Chris Finlayson’s preferred foreshore and seabed mix of “public domain” and guaranteed all-comers’ access with reservations for wahi tapu, recognition of customary use rights, access to the courts or talks for customary title, protection of existing private property and government overall regulation but an iwi veto on development where it has customary title.

Ngati Porou keeps its 2008 deal with Michael Cullen, which was better than it could have got through the courts.

Most will likely buy this modest change. But many Maori, including at least one Maori party MP, will say honour requires the stronger options in Finlayson’s document. This highlights tensions within iwi and among Maori between the old and the new, the past and the future, the spiritual and the commercial.

Within iwi it is still the traditional leading families who have final authority and the standing to deal one-to-one with Key, rather than the leaders known in some quarters as “democrats” who have risen to power on merit or by votes — though in a generation or two, as iwi modernise, the “democrats” are likely to prevail, just as professionalism is now increasingly preferred to rank in managing assets.

Iwi must also manage a tension between deeply felt animist spiritual beliefs that infuse perspectives on water and land and much else and adjustment to a highly internationalised secular society and economy.

So it is perhaps apt that Finlayson, a practising Catholic, put out his discussion paper just before Easter, itself now a commercial/spiritual hybrid.

Leave aside the Pope’s compromised status as head of a tarnished church — which, an Irish journalist said this week, has prompted the faithful there to “separate their faith from their institution”. Leave aside, too, that British practising Christians stripped iwi of assets, warred with them as “rebels”, suspended the rule of law and all but stamped out the language and custom.

Were Christ to have been reincarnated this Easter, he would have found better among some iwi leaders, in grace and dignity. He might have marvelled that Christian ritual is tacked on to tikanga and treated in public life as culturally correct because Maori value the ritual even though elsewhere in formal and informal life it has long since fallen into disuse.

This admixture of animism and Christian ritual and post-Christian secularism is a marker of this distinct society.

And this distinct society will do a deal on the beaches that would have been unthinkable 25 years ago. Even four years ago National could not have hatched Finlayson’s Easter curate’s-egg for iwi.

That’s Key.