Carl Chenery: Stolen Taranaki land should be given back

The Waitara Endowment lands were the first confiscated at the Land Wars in Taranaki. Photo / Carl Chenery
The Waitara Endowment lands were the first confiscated at the Land Wars in Taranaki. Photo / Carl Chenery

This year Prime Minister Bill English was in Auckland for Waitangi Day and he gave a couple of remarkable and not widely reported speeches.

At Orakei Marae he acknowledged the progress achieved by Ngati Whatua since having Bastion Pt returned.

Later in the day, English visited Hoani Waititi Marae in West Auckland where he highlighted that we were 23 years away from 2040 - the bicentenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

He asked, What it would be for us to be able to stand in 2040 and be proud of the steps we have taken between now and then?

One action that should be assessed against the Prime Minister's "looking back from 2040" test, is the New Plymouth (Waitara Lands) Bill currently before a select committee of Parliament.

This as a bill of national significance because it relates to the lands first confiscated at the start of the Land Wars in Taranaki.

The New Plymouth District Council's predecessors received the Waitara Endowment lands for free from the Crown.

Now, through this local bill, the council seeks to sell the lands, rather than return them to the original owners.

The fact that the Waitara Endowment lands were illegally confiscated is not in dispute. George Grey said so after his review in 1863.

The 1927 Sim Commission said so. The Waitangi Tribunal in 1986 said so.

At the Maori Affairs select committee hearing at Owai Marae in Waitara, chairman Chester Borrows told the whole hearing that this was not in dispute, and the New Plymouth District Council mayor and Taranaki Regional Council chairman both agreed.

There just seems to be a gap between this fact and the ability to do the right thing - returning these lands to the original owners, the Waitara hapu of Otaraua and Manukorihi.

The council seems to have three reasons for not returning the lands to the Waitara hapu.

First, the council subsequently promised to sell the lands to those currently leasing them.

The council and the Crown both need to take responsibility for the impacts of these promises on leaseholders.

Second, is the claim that Te Atiawa, during its settlement, declined to purchase the lands for $23m. ("They were given a chance and they didn't take it.") This story was clarified at the hearing where Peter Moreahu, one of the negotiators for Te Atiawa, stated, "We did not decline the offer to buy the endowment lands for $23m, we declined the offer to pay a $23m ransom to get back our lands".

Consequently, the lands were left outside of the settlement to be addressed separately.

This was acknowledged by Minister of Treaty Settlements Chris Finlayson.

In the third reading of the Te Atiawa Claims Settlement Bill in November last year, he stated, "I acknowledge that one of the emotions being felt by some Te Atiawa today will be frustration around the issue of the Waitara Endowment lands. I hope this will be a generation that reaches some resolution over this land..."

Again, both the council and Crown need to be responsible here.

Third, the bill supposedly balances the competing outcomes by using the sales of the lands to create a fund for the benefit of the wider community and Te Atiawa would have a say in how it is spent.

What the New Plymouth District Council omits (and hasn't communicated to the public) is that the Waitara hapu have already given generously.

Historic documents show that $40m to $50m have been paid to the district council, its predecessors and the community in lease payments from these stolen lands.

That amount includes payments from those members of the Waitara hapu who are leaseholders on their stolen lands.

The select committee has three options. As the bill is currently written it will compound further injustice for hapu, create another Treaty grievance and lead to a likely occupation or non-violent civil disobedience 150 years after the original confiscation.

Rejecting the bill will perpetuate the injustice but will not compound it. Amending the bill with some courage, creativity and humility, and returning the land to hapu, would not add to the past mistakes.

The land needs to be returned, with no strings attached. The Bastion Pt lands that the Prime Minister was acknowledging on Waitangi Day this year were given back without strings, so there is a precedent.

If we take on the Prime Minister's statement from Waitangi Day this year about being able to look back from 2040 and be proud of steps we have taken between now and then, the current New Plymouth (Waitara Lands) Bill clearly fails that test.

We need courageous and creative politicians to do the right thing. We need more of us as citizens to be involved in understanding and owning our history to ensure this is done.

• Carl Chenery, a Pakeha of English, Irish and Scottish descent, is based in Auckland where he is a member of Tamaki Treaty Workers.

- NZ Herald

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