Saturday, 2 August 2014

Do we really want one law for all?

One Law for All. It's a good slogan and, like Motherhood and apple pie, pretty difficult to object to. Some of our politicians have started saying this. We have an election coming up here in New Zealand. The sub text of the slogan is that some people feel that Maori are getting a better-than-fair deal. Specifically two things:

We have a separate Maori electoral role which elects its own MPs. Sounds very apartheid at first glance, but the first difference is that Maori themselves decide if they vote on the General role with the rest of us, or on the Maori role. And when I say 'decide' I mean each individual makes that choice, it isn't delegated to some representative body that is out of their control. If Maori don't want the role they can just (individually) stop using it. The other difference is that the MPs are real MPs, with as much status as any other. So not apartheid.

The second thing is that there is consultation about various issues such as how land gets used, where motorways get built and so on. One of the objections to this is that such consultation takes up time and time is money.
These two privileges get some people fired up and using the word 'unfair' and so on. I guess I'm in the demographic that gets fired up: white, middle class, middle aged, male. So why aren't I?

The answer is, quite simply, history.

If you were on the first boat load of people to arrive in this country and you were setting up a society for the first time, from scratch, 'One Law for All' is just obvious. But we aren't. Not by a long shot.

When the English took over New Zealand they did not do it by conquest. They signed a treaty with Maori. There are arguments over what that treaty says, not uncommon with legal documents, but it is pretty clear that there was a promise that Maori would be able to keep the rights they already had over the land. This is more complex than it might sound. In the UK the land is owned by 'the crown' and people actually own a 'title' to the land, which is a licence to use it rather than ownership. I've heard there are strange exceptions to that but it is generally the case. It is the same here in New Zealand. So the New Zealand land effectively became owned by Queen Victoria in 1940, with Maori now having a title.

This allows the state to exercise compulsory purchase when, say, they want to build a motorway through your house, dig for oil under and fly planes over it. We don't have a simple ownership right to our land, we have a title.

Okay, almost before the ink on the treaty was dry boatloads of settlers began arriving from England and they wanted land. The history is a bit complicated but dirty deals were done, fighting broke out, troops from the UK were brought in to quell the rebellious natives and land was confiscated. It wasn't only confiscated, there were other ways of prising Maori apart from their land which were more subtle. Remember the compulsory purchase? It was decided that Maori land did not need to be 'purchased' as such, it could be just taken if the state needed it. Since it was simpler to take Maori land rather than pay money for other land you can guess that was the preference. While the fighting was over fairly quickly, the compulsory 'purchase' arrangements continued well into last century.

Less formal was the casual prejudice that sidelined Maori economically. I grew up on a farm that was confiscated land and we had a Maori farm hand. I'm not sure my father and the farm hand gave much thought to the history, or even if they knew it. But the farm hand wanted to buy a car and he needed a loan. My father knew the bank manager well so he talked to my father about it who approached the bank manager on his behalf. My father told me he explained to the manager that this farm hand was in steady work, was a reliable character and that he himself was prepared to guarantee the loan. The bank manager explained that this, then state owned, bank did not lend to Maori. So there was no loan. My father had a loan, but he was white.

The result was that all the best land got into the hands of white settlers who cleared it and farmed it and built our economy on it.

But the unfairness of this came back to haunt us eventually and late last century we started doing something about it. The first major compensation settlement was for Tainui, the people who used to own the rich Waikato area. They got some land back and cash. I remember at the time people pointing out that Tainui were magnanimous. The value of the compensation was nothing like what they had lost. Everyone understood that the only land that could be returned was land that had not passed into private hands, and there was no way the cash could make up for it. This has been the pattern for subsequent settlements. No one, at that point, suggested there ought to be one law for all. One law for all would see farmers turned off their lands and any government trying to make that happen would never survive another election.

Since then there have been moves to respond to this magnanimity. The Maori electorate seats were already there, they've been in place since 1867, shortly after the fighting and they were brought in to ensure Maori could vote. In recent years the number has been expanded from 4 to 7, to more fairly reflect the number of people on the Maori electoral roll. Consultation with the local iwi (tribe) over various issues is commonplace, though not always comprehensive or even popular, but it is a move in the right direction.

We now get situations like this where a taniwha, or water monster, held up a highway construction for, it was claimed, 3 weeks while local Maori were consulted. Now, some people got very, very annoyed about this and talked up the cost of the project, the amount of time wasted and the 'ridiculous belief' in taniwha. I saw it as real progress. We often accomodate various 'ridiculous beliefs' such as the value of heritage and religious sites and surely Maori, to whom we owe so much, ought to get similar accomodation.

But let's not get carried away about having one law for all. If we insist on that it will cost us dearly.

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