Sunday, March 21, 2010
David Round: The Waikato River Settlement Bill
Before Parliament at present is the Waikato-Tainui Raupatu Claims (Waikato River) Settlement Bill, which gives effect to a deed of settlement, between Waikato Maori and the Crown, of historical Maori claims to the Waikato River. My distinct understanding, as you will know if you have read page 91 of my book Truth or Treaty?, is that there was a full and final settlement of the Waikato claim in the time of that revered matriarch Princess Te Puea, and that the latest 1995 settlement (of which this bill forms a part) is another full and final settlement. But let that pass. My interest today is in just one aspect of the latest settlement; that ‘co-management and related arrangements’ will be established ‘for the overarching purpose of restoring and protecting the health and wellbeing of the Waikato River for future generations’.
To this end, a ‘Vision and Strategy for the Waikato River’ is to be enacted by the statute. It runs to three pages. It begins, poetically, with the words ‘the river of life, each curve more beautiful than the last’. A general statement of vision follows, ‘for a future where a healthy Waikato River sustains abundant life and prosperous communities who, in turn, are all responsible for restoring and protecting the health and wellbeing of the…. river and all it embraces for generations to come’. Thirteen objectives follow this vision. Only two of them specifically mention the tribe, the Waikato-Tainui, and their relationships with the river. The first objective is simply the restoration and protection of the river’s health and wellbeing. Others include recognition that the river is degraded and should not be degraded further; recognition of its importance to our country’s social cultural environmental and economic wellbeing; the protection of significant sites, fisheries, flora and fauna; the restoration of water quality, for everyone’s benefit; the promotion of improved public access to the river; integrated, holistic and co-ordinated management of the river’s natural, physical, cultural and historic resources; the adoption of a precautionary approach towards decisions that might threaten the river, and the restoration of the relationships of all communities in the region with the river. Following on from this is another page and a bit on a strategy for the river, emphasising the restoration and protection of the river. Of the twelve paragraphs here, only two refer to relations between Maori and the river; all the others refer either to the wellbeing and improvement of the river itself or to relationships between the whole community and the river.
This vision and strategy is not just flannel, but will have legal status. It will count as a national policy statement under the Resource Management Act (the RMA), and therefore the planning documents of regional and district councils will have to comply with it. It will count as a policy statement under various Acts to do with conservation and outdoor recreation ~ the Conservation Act, Reserves Act and so on. Consequently it will form a part of regional and local planning, and in various other situations will have to be given particular consideration.
Then further sections of the Act will establish a statutory body, the Guardians of the Waikato River. Of its ten members, five represent local Maori, one the region, and four the interests of all New Zealanders. Their duty is to promote and work to achieve the restoration and protection of the river, and the implementation of the vision. Among other things, they must ‘follow the principles of consensus decision making’. A Waikato River Statutory Board is also created, with ten functions, of which the first two are to assist and support the tribe in their special relationship with the river, and the other eight are to work with the vision and strategy.
And then there are the co-management arrangements, whereby the tribe, local authorities and government departments aim at an integrated management approach to the river and its resources. A plan must be prepared for the river. The tribe is involved in all the components of the plan; the relevant government departments or local bodies are involved in their particular bits ~ conservation, fisheries and so on. In relation to future planning under the resource Management Act, this integrated plan is something that the regional council must in future ‘have regard to’. And then the tribe may ~ not ‘must’ ~ prepare a Waikato-Tainui environmental plan, which, if in existence, is to be taken into account in future in the same way that iwi management plans are taken into account now. They are not binding, just matters to be taken into account.
I hope I have not bored you with this. It is not gripping stuff, I agree. But for all that, it has some people very concerned. In particular, some farmers are concerned that their rights of political representation are being lost. Previously, regional councils, elected by and answerable to the electors, made regional policy statements and plans. Any ‘vision and strategy’ might be mentioned in such plans, and have to be at least considered, but were not binding. Now, however, regional councils have no choice; the vision and strategy (which, you remember, has the status of a national policy statement under the RMA) is binding upon them. The wishes of electors are therefore subservient to a vision and strategy serving the interests of one racially defined section of the population.
That is the argument. To be perfectly honest (as I nearly always am!) I do not think it has much, or indeed any, validity. I say this for several reasons, but first of all because I cannot see that there is anything which anyone can object to in the vision itself. You saw the summary of it above in the third paragraph. Can we object to that ~ to the health and protection of the river, and the rest? I cannot. The connexions of the local tribe with the river are perfectly reasonable, and are only two of the thirteen elements of the vision. Another element is the connexion of everyone else with the river. To be perfectly honest again, I cannot but wonder if the base of farmers’ objections ~ dairy farmers’ objections ~ is simply their desire to continue to pollute the river and its tributaries with the filth of their cowsheds. There are many farmers in New Zealand, not farming cows, who do not have a very high opinion of the generality of dairy farmers, and are angry that dairy farmers’ often brutish attitudes to their animals and the environment ~ and their workers ~ unjustly give all farmers a bad name.
Certainly, we always have to see how words work out in practice. Noble sentiments may be perverted somewhere along the way. But that is true of all laws, not just this one. On the face of it, I cannot see much to complain of. The vision is promoted by the Guardians, half of whom are chosen to represent the wider Waikato community and the rest of the country, and all of whom are obliged to work by consensus. They will be subject to the usual public scrutiny. As for the integrated river management plan, the tribe has input into that, certainly, but they, and everyone else, may have input into plans now. I do not see there will necessarily be much difference.
The vision and strategy have the status of a ‘national policy statement’ under the RMA. This procedure has existed since the RMA was made in 1991. Since then it has always been possible for the government to declare particular policies and make them binding. The government could have imposed this vision and strategy simply by its own decree. Instead it has chosen to put the policy in legislation. It may therefore last longer. But the same object could be achieved by another means; and the object is a good one.
This is the second time recently that I have said this, but let us not be unreasonable. We can be too suspicious. There are, heaven knows, plenty of things to be suspicious of; but if we see sinister racist plots absolutely everywhere people will think we are paranoid. Time will of course tell, but I am inclined to think that this week we may sleep easily in our beds.
at 9:00 AM