Maori resistance to the theft of the seabed and foreshore

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An estimated 5,000 marched across the AUckland Harbour Bridge to mark the start of the t of the Tamaki Makau Rae leg of the Seabed and Foreshore hikoi. Photo from Aotearoa Indie Media Centre.

In June 2003, New Zealand’s Court of Appeal ruled that the customary title of Maori (Aotearoa/NZ’s Indigenous people) to the seabed and foreshore had never been legally extinguished, and that cases relating to it could therefore be heard by the Maori Land Court.

The social democratic Labour  government of Prime Minister Helen Clarke reacted to this decision by introducing legislation to place the ownership of the foreshore and seabed in the hands of the Crown. At hui (meetings) around the country, Maori almost unanimously rejected the government’s proposals. In May of this year, Maori from all parts of Aotearoa converged on Wellington in a massive hikoi (march) timed to coincide with the passage of the legislation. Maori see Labour’s law as an attack on their democratic rights and on their prospects for economic advancement. Maori feared that they would be forced to compete with multinational companies for licences to establish businesses such as fish farms and tourist resorts on their own coasts.

Labour and the rightist National Party smashed Aotearoa’s labour movement in the ’80s and ’90s, but they chose to co-opt rather than confront Maori organisations. Both parties used the Treaty of Waitangi to get Maori off the streets and into the courtroom, where they were tied up in red tape. The Treaty was the means by which the British Crown gained “sovereignty” over New Zealand. This process temporarily ended the militant protests that had marked the ’70s and early ’80s, but it had the longer-term effect of raising Maori expectations and strengthening their organisation, so that they have a much lower threshold of disillusionment with Labour than Pakeha (non-Maori) workers, who remain weak and demoralised after the attacks of the last thirty years.

Determined opposition. The day before the marchers reached Auckland, Television New Zealand claimed that only sixty people would cross the city’s harbour bridge. Despite strong winds and heavy rain, eighty times that number made the journey, walking in the footsteps of the great Land March of 1975. The hikoi grew in size, and the final rally of 25,000 in Wellington represented Aotearoa’s biggest political demonstration in nearly a quarter of a century. Contingents of Pakeha marched down Wellington’s main street and the protest attracted sympathy within sections of the trade union movement. The Service and Food Workers, Manufacturing and Construction and National Distribution Unions all backed the march. Arguments raged inside other unions, as bureaucrats fought to dampen down calls for solidarity with the hikoi. The leader of the Amalgamated Workers Union faced a rank and file revolt over his refusal to back the rally.

Dollar-driven land grab. Awestruck by the sheer scale of the last stage of the hikoi, the media swapped insults for saccharine pseudo-compliments. Nauseating “broadcaster to the nation” Paul Holmes had rubbished the hikoi and called one of its leaders a “ball of lard,” but by the evening of the hikoi’s arrival in Wellington he claimed that the marchers made him feel “love and pride.”

“Love and pride” did not mean much in practice. The political establishment remained united against Maori, and Labour refused to scrap its legislation. But the mana (prestige) of the hikoi put huge pressure on Labour’s Maori MPs. Two of them crossed the floor of parliament, forcing Labour to stitch up a last-minute deal with the rightwing New Zealand First Party to pass its legislation. Cabinet Minister Tariana Turia resigned from Labour altogether, and was hailed as a hero when she joined the hikoi, announcing the formation of a Maori Party designed to destroy the careers of Labour’s loyal Maori MPs. Turia says the Maori Party will be open to coalition arrangements with the rightwing National Party, and has welcomed the support of rightwing Maori. It seems likely her party will try to play Labour and National off against each other, in an effort to win increased funding for Maori social services and businesses.

Why has the Labour Party forsaken a big chunk of its support base in the face of such enormous opposition? The answer can be found in understanding the pressure that U.S. imperialism is directly and indirectly exerting on the Labour government. Labour is desperate to get a free trade deal with the U.S. and is determined to remove barriers to foreign investment.

Aotearoa’s long and beautiful coastline presents a tempting prospect to U.S. investors keen on making profits from sea farming or luxury resorts. Maori correctly believe that nationalisation of the seabed and foreshore is a prelude to leases and ultimately sales to U.S. investors. Maori and many Pakeha remember that Prime Minister Helen Clark was a Minister in the Labour government that privatised dozens of public assets in the ’80s, including the railways and Telecom. Because of the need to remove obstacles to investment, Labour wants to roll back the already-derisory powers of Maori-focused legal structures like the Land Court and the Waitangi Tribunal, in case they end up creating red tape for U.S. investors. Many Maori are aware of the imperialist monster lurking behind Labour’s confiscation legislation.

Labour’s task is complicated by the installation of Don Brash as the leader of the National Party. Brash has launched an aggressive campaign on behalf of U.S. imperialism. He is very close to rightwingers in Australia, and his political strategy resembles John Howard’s: like Howard, Brash hides a neoliberal economic agenda inside the “Trojan horse” of appeals to social conservatism and national chauvinism.

By scaremongering about the privatisation of the beaches by Maori capitalists, Brash has managed to win the support of a chunk of Labour’s white working class base, demoralised and confused by the defeat of the union movement in the ’80s and ’90s. Helen Clarke’s government is implementing some of Brash’s policies as “pre-emptive strikes” against his election campaign. Labour is prepared to sacrifice its Maori support for its larger white constituency, and in any case is unable to reconcile the interests of Maori capitalism and its commitment to the continued internationalisation of the economy.

Pakeha socialists fail to lead. Speakers at hui have compared the dispossession of the Maori to the fate of Iraqis under U.S. occupation. On the hikoi, some of the most militant protesters wore Palestinian scarves, to show their solidarity with another people oppressed by imperialism.

The Left could have been a bridge between Maori and the Pakeha working class, but its organisations failed to intervene effectively in the hikoi. Even in the big cities the vast majority of marchers wouldn’t have seen a banner or placard with a leftwing slogan on it, or read a piece of socialist literature. The Left also failed to effectively mobilise the small but significant minority of Pakeha trade unionists who were opposed to the legislation.

I marched with the hikoi through Hamilton, a city of 120,000 people built in the middle of rich plain lands confiscated from Maori after the Waikato war of 1863-64. Pakeha mostly watched from the footpaths as the huge crowd marched slowly toward the city square, singing waiata (Maori songs), chanting in Maori and flying tribal flags. Homemade placards announced large contingents from isolated rural communities like Marokopa and Mokau.

Hundreds of local iwi members waiting in the square welcomed the march with a deafening haka. The square overflowed with protesters, but I felt sad when I saw how few of them had white faces. A reporter for a local Maori radio station approached my partner and I, and asked why Pakeha like us had joined the hikoi. We replied that all working class New Zealanders should be concerned about the theft of the seabed and foreshore, and that Pakeha trade unionists like us had to get involved in the hikoi. The reporter listened sympathetically, and then asked us where all the Pakeha trade unionists were hiding. We could see his point.

A speaker in the square recalled the battle of Orakau, which was fought south of Hamilton during the Waikato war. The crowd responded by chanting the words of Rewi Maniapoto, the chief who led Maori forces at Orakau:  “Ka whawhai tonu matou, Ake! Ake! Ake!” Rewi’s words translate as “We will never surrender, we will fight forever and forever!” But Rewi wasn’t able to fight forever — he was forced to retreat from the rich lands around Hamilton into the hinterland of the North Island, and his people eventually had to do a deal with the government which saw them lose their independence and most of their land.

Rewi’s heroism could not defeat the might of imperialism, and the heroism of the great seabed and foreshore hikoi was not enough to defeat it in the twenty-first century either. Without the support of a strong union movement able to hit capitalism where it hurts, the great movement against imperialism’s new confiscation has for the moment been diverted onto the path of compromise.

Common cause. Some socialists tried to combine support for the struggle against the theft of the seabed and foreshore with opposition to the pro-capitalist perspectives of some hikoi leaders. Trade unionist, long-time Maori activist Justin Taua was a focus for some of these socialists. At hui up and down the North Island Justin argued that a capitalist Maori Party was a dead end, and that the only way to defeat the legislation was through direct action.

Taua argued that Maori should seize contested coastal sites throughout the country, and invite working class Pakeha to support them. He argued that any sea farming businesses should be run by workers, and pointed to the occupied factories movement in Argentina as an example to Maori. His message resonated with a number of the younger, more militant members of the hikoi, but lack of resources prevented that support being translated into an organisational challenge to the political leadership of the hikoi.  

But the conditions that produced the hikoi will not go away, and they affect Pakeha as well as Maori workers. A month or so after the end of the hikoi I stood on a huge picket line outside Sky City casino, in downtown Auckland, and got a glimpse of the future of the struggle against racism in Aotearoa.

The Service and Food Workers Union’s Sky City members were on strike demanding better wages and conditions and increased union rights. Sky City made record profits last year — the net surplus of their Auckland operation was up 67.3% — yet they pay their employees a starting rate of only $10.61 an hour (about $1 more than the minimum wage). Looking about the picket, I was struck by the mixture of ethnic diversity with class solidarity. Maori, Samoan, Tongan, Pakeha, Asian and African workers all stood together, chanting against the bosses who tried to divide them in the past with individual contracts and anti-union scaremongering.

At Sky City, a dynamic and militant union has been built from scratch in a few short years, in the face of unfriendly labour laws and bosses’ harassment. It is no coincidence that the Sky City workers’ union is one of the few which officially supported the Maori struggle against the seabed and foreshore. Sky City’s workers know what Maori are up against.

A common enemy demands a common struggle, and the job of socialists should be to unite Maori and Pakeha workers against the imperialist carve-up of Aotearoa. We need to take the fighting spirit of the Sky City picket line onto the foreshore of Aotearoa.

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