The evidence sadly suggests the Minister, Kiritapu Allan, is not in charge.
At least, not when Maori tribal leaders opt to flex their muscle.
This raises significant questions about accountability and ministerial responsibility under the Ardern government.
It also raises questions about so-called Treaty partnerships and co-governance.
Our appetite for checking out Allan’s grip on DoC was whetted by news that tribal leaders in the Bay of Plenty area have slapped a “Keep Out” sign on the Whirinaki Conservation Park.
They don’t call it a “Keep Out” sign, of course. They call it a rahui.
The rahui in this case has the positive objective of ensuring no one can go into the park – at least, not if they don’t belong to the tribe – which means they can’t take Covid-19 into the park.
This is an alternative to requiring visitors, audiences or customers to show their vaccination cards, which is the way things tend to be done in communities whose leaders don’t have the power to impose a rahui.
The negative effect is to disrupt people’s holiday travel plans and deprive business owners of making a buck and generating desperately needed income.
Hmm. A conflict of interests. Who should resolve it?
There was a time when the answer obviously was “the government”.
Not any more.
Never mind that a rahui – so far as we know – has zero legal authority.
The government’s difficulties in enabling people to travel freely through an area covered by a tribal rahui partly stems from the park’s co-governance management system.
The Crown is one partner, local Maori are the other.
But the rahui suggests the will of the tribe – at least in this matter – has outweighed the will of the Crown.
This is an ominous pointer to what will happen when Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has introduced co-governance management systems to administer the agencies that will control a vital resource under her Three Waters plan.
Another factor is that the will of DoC has outweighed the will of its Minister.
We base this on our reading of a Stuff report headed Rāhui on visitor access to Whirinaki Conservation Park to protect locals from Covid-19 was opposed by Conservation Minister Kiri Allan
Holiday-makers with bookings for accommodation in the Whirinaki Forest Park have been urged to cancel to protect vulnerable local communities from Covid-19.
Conservation Minister Kiri Allan says she explicitly told officials the department should not support a rāhui designed to stop visitors entering the Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tane Conservation Park.
The rāhui was imposed regardless by Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whare to protect the health of the people in the isolated settlements of Minginui, Te Whaiti and Ngaputahi where Covid-19 vaccination rates are among the lowest in the country.
But if the Minister didn’t condone it, who announced it?
It was announced last Friday on the DOC website and in a post on the rūnanga’s Facebook page which also included the DOC logo, according to Stuff.
But Allan said she had told the department and tribal leadership last week that the Government’s Covid-19 traffic light system, and the requirement that all users of DOC huts aged 12 and over be vaccinated, were sufficient, and she did not support the rāhui. She said the traffic light system was in place to avoid those situations.
“I sought advice and DOC were a part of this conversation, the senior management team was informed so they know my position.”
Then comes mention of the democracy-corroding co-management arrangement of the sort increasingly being introduced to govern public agencies and facilities around the country:
The Facebook post said Ngāti Whare “co-managed” the park with DOC, and together they asked would-be visitors to refrain from visiting the forest until the end of January.
It urged those with existing accommodation bookings to cancel them, and said DOC would provide a full refund and was not taking any further bookings.
According to the Stuff report, the DOC website has a red alert message on Whirinaki park pages which says a rāhui restricting all access for people from outside the immediate community had been invoked by Ngāti Whare, and was intended to reduce the Covid-19 risk by limiting the number of visitors entering the area.
“The rāhui is not enforceable by law, but compliance with it is a mark of respect for the views and intent of Ngāti Whare to protect their whanaunga.”
Allan was reported as saying she was unaware of the DOC website communication to the public or the use of the DOC logo on the rūnanga Facebook post until Stuff brought it to her attention on Monday morning. She was investigating further.
We wonder what her investigation uncovered. She hasn’t had anything to say on the Beehive website, where we look for her official announcements, since December 17.
On that occasion, she enthusiastically announced funding for a raft of projects to enhance wetland areas, restore “the mana” of a famous natural spring, maintain a native plant nursery and protect native species by reducing predators.
How do you measure wetlands’ mana?
That’s a question someone at the Royal Society of New Zealand might care to examine.
National’s tourism spokesman, Todd McClay, has gone out to bat for business people affected by the rahui.
The Government’s support of a rāhui preventing Kiwis exploring the Whirinaki Conservation Park is a kick in the teeth for tourism businesses who were counting on holidaymakers visiting the region this summer, he said.
“Just last week, Conservation Minister Kiri Allan said that she did not believe the rāhui was necessary. Now, DOC says the Government department is ‘supportive of the intent behind the rāhui.’ New Zealanders deserve honest answers from this Government.”
DoC’s difficulties in doing its Minister’s bidding likely stems from its role in a management partnership.
The Ngāti Whare Claims Settlement Act 2012 acknowledges the significance of the Park to Ngāti Whare as kaitiaki of the Park and provides for co-governance of it by the Trustees of Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whare (Ngāti Whare) and the Bay of Plenty Conservation Board, to be achieved through the development and joint approval of this Management Plan.
The co-governance partnership is also given effect through a Conservation Accord which sets out how the Minister of Conservation, Department of Conservation (Department) and Ngāti Whare will work together.
The Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park will continue to be managed as a Conservation Park by the Department on behalf of the people of New Zealand.
And that (we suppose) is what is being done this Christmas.
Want to learn more about rahui?
We turned to How the use of rāhui for protecting taonga has evolved over time, written by Kimberley H. Maxwell and Wally Penetitoto.
They say rāhui can be implemented with or without ‘teeth’, the ‘without teeth’ forms being milder because they do not call upon the dread powers of the gods to enforce them (Best, 1904).
“If certain prayers and rituals are performed when a rāhui is instated, the powers of the gods become part of the rāhui and give it teeth or supernatural enforcement.
“Best (1904) described the ritual with which a tohunga installed a rāhui with teeth. First the tohunga recited a karakia (prayer; chant and incantation) before erecting a material token that shows that the rāhui is in place. This token was usually an erected post or pou rāhui (a boundary post erected to warn people against trespassing).
“Pou rāhui are still erected to symbolise that a rāhui is in place (Koro Dewes, Ngāti Porou, kaumātua (male elder): personal communication, 2007).”
Best (1904) and White (1899) both observed that slaves sometimes were buried alive beneath the pou rāhui.
They were called ‘ika tapu’ (first man slain in battle) and were sacrificed to increase the potency of the rāhui.
This part of the ceremony – it is heartening to learn – “is not practiced today”.
Bob Edlin is a veteran journalist and editor for the Point of Order blog HERE.