Making Sense of the Foreshore and Seabed controversy

In June 2003 the New Zealand Court of Appeal upheld in a landmark decision the right of 8 Marlborough tribes or iwi to have their claim to customary title over the local foreshore and seabed heard in the Maori Land Court. The claim was sparked initially by the fact that local iwi were being denied a real say in the setting up of new commercial mussel farming ventures in the Marlborough Sounds.

However, there is also a long history of attempts by Maori to assert their control over resources in the face of attacks by the Crown - dating back to 1843 and the armed confrontation between Ngati Toa and the NZ Company at Wairau.

The reaction of the NZ Labour government to the Court of Appeal decision was to claim that under the Treaty of Waitangi which established the British Crown as the lawful government authority in Aotearoa/New Zealand, ownership of the foreshore and seabed also became vested in the Crown by “prerogative right”.

Maori resistance: an unbroken thread

But the fact is that neither the Treaty of Waitangi or anywhere else did Maori ever agree to relinquish their guardianship or tupuna rights over the foreshore and seabed. Indeed, under the Treaty of Waitangi Maori were guaranteed, subject to British kawanatanga or government, their right to te tino rangatiratanga or sovereignty over all their existing lands and possessions.

Evidence of this “unbroken thread” of Maori assertions to sovereignty can be traced from the 1840s right through to the present day. For instance in 1844 the great Nga Puhi chief Hone Heke chopped down the British flag from the flagstaff at his settlement of Kororareka in the Bay of Islands four times because as his fellow chief Kawiti put it “this flag takes away the authority of the chiefs and all our lands”.

And as for the argument that Maori sovereignty or customary title has never been understood to apply to the foreshore and seabed, as far back as 1869 chiefs in the Hauraki region were petitioning the Crown over the loss of control over foreshore, seabed and other natural resources (see the September 2003 issue of Tu Mai magazine).

Given this long record of continued assertions by Maori to their tupuna rights in the foreshore and seabed, it is all the more astounding that the Prime Minister Helen Clark and Attorney General Margaret Wilson can claim that it has always been “assumed” that the foreshore belonged to the Crown - and that by introducing new legislation to block Maori from seeking recognition of their customary rights in the courts it is merely “clarifying” the situation for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

Labour’s opportunism

The government’s proposal to vest ownership of the seabed and foreshore in the “people of New Zealand” is in reality nothing more than a cynical ploy to stir up nationalist sentiment and exploit growing public concern over restrictions on access to parts of the coastline which are already in the hands of private individuals (at the moment predominantly farmers and wealthy overseas investors).

However this disguises the fact that even under public ownership, access to the foreshore and seabed is far from assured. In many places local port authorities and government departments have already restricted access to parts of the coastline for recreational users. In addition, the fact that control over marine resources such as natural gas is vested in “the people of New Zealand” does not mean that ordinary members of the community have any power to make decisions over their use or allocation. Not only Maori but Pakeha workers have also suffered as a result of the short-sighted actions of capitalist politicians at both central and local body level - for example the rapid depletion of the Maui Gas fields off the Taranaki coast and the failure of local councils to protect beaches around cities such as Dunedin and Wellington from sewerage contamination because of inadequate facilities for waste treatment and disposal.

After a series of consultative meetings or hui with Maori which were dominated by angry protests and stormy denunciations of government policy, the Labour government has now agreed to the “concession” that while Crown ownership of the seabed and foreshore remains non-negotiable, Maori “customary rights” will be protected and safeguarded. Yet these “customary rights” such as fishing and shellfish collecting are virtually meaningless if Maori are not any real measure of control over the foreshore and seabed - so as to be able to prevent the pollution of traditional fishing grounds or the rezoning of coastal areas for commercial or residential development (indeed even if Maori were allowed to gain customary title this would in no way compensate them for the loss of tupuna or guardianship rights, since under British and New Zealand law native customary title is subordinate to the interests of the Crown).

Maori nationalism offers no solution

Opposition to the government’s foreshore and seabed proposals does not mean however that socialists should give unqualified support to the demands of some Maori radicals who in the Paeroa Declaration of July 2003 call for the seabed and foreshore to be placed under the sole ownership of tribal iwi. This is not because of any fears about possible Maori moves to restrict public access to the coastline (which is more or less an invention of the capitalist media) but rather due to the fact that many of these tribal iwi (such as Ngai Tahu, the largest landowner in the South Island) are more like mini-corporations than democratic grassroots organisations. Over the past fifteen years they have received millions of dollars worth of compensation for land that was stolen by the Crown through the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process, yet this money has mainly benefited only a small Maori capitalist elite. Working class Maori, and especially those living in urban areas with no tribal affiliation, have hardly benefited at all from the settlement process.

While marxists recognise the status of Maori as an oppressed nation with a long history of struggle against imperialism, the fact is that in Aotearoa/NZ today there exist (as the name indicates) at least two distinct nationalities inhabiting a common territory. In these circumstances the demand for Maori tribes or iwi to be given control over such an important resource as the foreshore and seabed can only be progressive if it matched with a demand for the overthrow of capitalism. Otherwise it will prove to be nothing more than a recipe for racial segregation and economic apartheid - not to mention the fact that no capitalist government could never concede to such a demand since it would render their own economic position completely untenable.

Some ultra-left groups try to justify their blanket support for Maori separatism by referring to Lenin, who made a distinction between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed nations - one completely reactionary, the other one progressive. However the starting point for Lenin and the Bolsheviks in supporting the right of oppressed nations to political and economic separation or self-determination was the need for international working class unity in the struggle against capitalism, which is the ultimate source of all political, racial and economic inequality. From this it followed that the Bolshevik’s did not support self-determination as a viable strategy in all places and at all times.

Discussing the claims of the Jewish national minority in Russia to “national-cultural autonomy” in his 1914 pamphlet The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Lenin quotes approvingly from an article written by another Russian marxist, V.I. Kossovsky: “the formula: national self-determination, which implies the right to territorial separation, does not in any way affect the question of how national relations within a given state organism should be regulated for nationalities that cannot or have no desire to leave the existing state” (V.I. Lenin, On the National Question and Proletarian Internationalism, Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, Moscow, 1969, p. 81).

Working-class unity is the key

That is why in the case of Aotearoa/NZ, marxists must reject not only unity with the capitalist politicians but also with the so-called “corporate warriors” within Maoridom. Instead we need to put forward an independent working-class program, based on the establishment of a bi-national, socialist republic of Aotearoa, with representatives of Maori and non-Maori working class or community organisations given an equal say in decisions affecting the use of valuable economic resources such as the foreshore and seabed. To do this we need Maori and Pakeha workers to break with their capitalist leaders and come together to form a new mass workers¹ party, while reserving the right for Maori to organise independently within such a broad political formation. Only through coming together in a revolutionary fight to change society will it be possible to achieve genuine political, economic and cultural liberation.

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