Is the government digging itself into a hole as it awaits a solution to the problem of contested land at Ihumatao?
For two days in a row, PM Jacinda Ardern has backed away from questions over a Crown loan being used to purchase the land where a housing development has been held up because of a long-running protest.
National’s Simon Bridges has sought to skewer the PM on the issue: in turn Ardern has hit back at the Opposition, accusing it of “disrespecting” the efforts by Maori leaders to resolve the occupation of the disputed land.
Maori King Tuheitia has been acting as mediator between mana whenua, who oppose a housing development by Fletcher Building on the land, and the iwi authority who accepted the development in exchange for a group of houses on the site. Speculation last week pointed to the possibility, under the mediation of the Maori King, Waikato-Tainui could buy the land from Fletchers.
Given the project could be worth upwards of $300m to Fletchers, the inference has been drawn that a loan from the Crown would be needed to finance the deal.
Any use of taxpayer money — however a loan from the Crown might be framed —would almost certainly provoke a backlash against the government.
Ardern has conceded that it is “an incredibly complex situation”: the implications for Treaty of Waitangi obligations are wide-ranging, so the government has to tread carefully.
At the same time, nobody expects Waikato-Tainui to pull out its own cheque book to fund a deal.
Not surprisingly, Bridges has pressed on with his bid to drive the PM into a corner, demanding she rule out the use of taxpayer money in any deal put forward by the mediating team.
The disputed land was confiscated in the 1860’s. It is part of a larger block at Itumatao which is regarded as having a special historical and cultural significance as one of the earliest places settled in Tamaki Makaurau. Fletcher Building which bought it in 2016 planned to build 480 houses and work was beginning when protestors blocked earth moving machinery. An eviction notice was served on them on July 23 — and Ardern announced a stay in development three days later. However she has avoided visiting the site, despite calls from the protestors for her to do so. Instead the protestors staged a hikoi to the PM’s electorate office in Auckland last week.
This is how Hansard recorded the latest exchange between Bridges and the PM:
Bridges: Has the Crown had any discussions regarding a loan to Kīngitanga or Tainui so either can purchase land at Ihumātao?
Ardern: As I said in the House yesterday, I’m not going to enter into speculation around negotiations between Kīngitanga and mana whenua. They are the parties around the table. We should respect the process that they’re involved in. That’s what this Government is going to do.
Bridges: Has the Crown had any discussions regarding a loan to the Kīngitanga or Tainui so either can purchase land at Ihumātao?
Ardern: As I said in my previous answer, the discussions between the parties include Kīngitanga and mana whenua. That is who is around the table talking with one another around a solution for Ihumātao. I am not going to disrespect that process, which is still ongoing, by entering into discussion or speculation around their talks.
Bridges: Will any public money be used to either directly or indirectly to purchase land at Ihumātao?
Ardern: Again, I refer to the process that is involving Kīngitanga and mana whenua. What I would also just add to that, of course, is that from the Crown’s perspective, we are mindful of our obligations as a Treaty partner; we’re mindful, of course, of our Treaty obligations; we’re mindful of Treaty precedent; and we’re, of course, mindful of our commercial obligations to the taxpayer. But we are also allowing the process to occur between mana whenua and Kīngitanga.
Bridges: Will she rule out any public money being used to either directly or indirectly purchase land at Ihumātao?
Ardern: As I just said, the process at the moment is between mana whenua and Kīngitanga. They are the ones that are in conversation, and I want to respect that. If you want to know my position on the Crown, of course, we are not a party to the conversations happening at present, but, from our perspective, we know we have obligations that include around the Treaty and Treaty precedent, and we take that very seriously.
Bridges: How much will the cheque by taxpayers be?
Ardern: Mr Speaker, again, I—
Speaker: Probably out of order.
Bridges: Does she accept that there is a public interest in knowing whether the Government—not Kīngitanga nor Tainui—is having any discussions regarding taxpayers’ money to the Kīngitanga or Tainui for the purposes of purchasing the land at Ihumātao; and, if not, why not?
Ardern: Again, public interest, I think, lies in there being resolution around Ihumātao and, at present, supporting the partners to find a solution, which we have been doing as a Government — supporting a for Māori, by Māori, solution. The conversation therefore is currently being led by Kīngitanga and involves mana whenua, not the Crown. With regard to the Crown’s wider position as to the land at Ihumātao, we are very aware that our obligation is, as a Treaty partner, respecting the Treaty and making sure that we don’t create precedent with regard to the Treaty.
Bridges: Why won’t she tell NZ and this House what’s happening with taxpayers’ money at Ihumātao?
Ardern: Because there is nothing to tell. The conversation right now is between mana whenua and Kīngitanga. I think most New Zealanders understand that this is an incredibly complex situation — an incredibly complex situation. On this side of the House, we’re treating it with respect and dignity. We are supporting an outcome that will be beneficial to everyone, but particularly those who are at the heart of this, which is the mana whenua and Kīngitanga.
Bridges: Is the Government being open and transparent in relation to taxpayers’ money at Ihumātao?
So, as Point of Order sees it, how the next chapter in this saga unfolds could have a far-reaching impact on NZ’s politics.