The Waikato and Waipa Rivers have been declared off limits during Level 3 of the Covid-19 emergency, prohibiting food gathering and all recreational activities on the waterways..
Elsewhere around the country people have been barred from going to some beaches by vigilante groups who set up checkpoints to impede the public.
In the case of the two rivers, the prohibition has been imposed by a former truck driver who now rejoices in the title of Māori King Tuheitia.
He has declared the rivers are subject to a rahui, a cultural and spiritual prohibition. It came into effect on Monday.
The king’s authority to make a rahui binding on anyone who feels they should not be constrained by it is dubious.
Point of Order hoped Local Government New Zealand would guide us on King Tuheitia’s entitlement to bar people from swimming or fishing in the rivers or boating on them.
In our email to LGNZ, we noted that rahui are increasingly being placed on or within public places – around the Bay of Plenty coast after the catastrophic White Island eruption, for example.
We wanted to know:
- What support do local authorities give to prohibitions imposed on people’s lawful activities by unelected Maori?
- Are local authorities obliged to sanction or permit rahui?
- Are local authorities required to help police them?
- And if so, which statutes underpin these obligations on local authorities?
The response was –
My feeling on this one is that it isn’t something the council is involved with. Speaking with a member of our team, they advise that generally councils have no role in monitoring or enforcing rāhui however a range of legislative powers such as safety bylaws and maritime provisions are available to councils and other authorities and can be invoked with parallel effect, on a case-by-case basis.
We were advised there’s a river authority that typically makes decisions around the Waikato river and it has a statute granting it powers.
According to the Waikato Times, Kīngitanga spokesman Rahui Papa said the rāhui was declared in response to the coronavirus crisis and is aimed at protecting the rivers.
Hmm. Is he suggesting waterways are vulnerable to the virus, too?
Perhaps not. It’s more a matter of the rivers needing a bit of rest and recreation.
“It is about informing the people and letting everyone know that, actually, because the waterways are a source of spiritual inspiration for our people, they need time to recover too,” Papa said.
“We don’t want to cut off the relationship with the river but we think the river needs time to rejuvenate and regenerate its spiritual self as well,” Papa said.
No specific date has been decided for when the rāhui will be lifted.
In the absence of that information, it would be comforting to know what test the waterways must pass before the king deems them fit to become recreational playgrounds again.
In other words, what measures will be applied to demonstrate to him – and anybody who asks – that they have been rejuvenated?
The Waikato Times report did not explore the legalities of the Maori monarchical muscle-flexing. It did say:
Territorial authorities and the Waikato River Authority have been informed of the rāhui. Marae and kaumātua along the river have been asked to help ensure the rāhui is respected. The prohibition applies to the entire lengths of the Waikato and Wāipa rivers.
Not surprisingly many citizens hoping to enjoy the advantages of the extra recreation allowed under Level 3 are bewildered.
The Waikato Times today reports:
Fish and Game Auckland Waikato fisheries manager Adam Daniel said he received a number of enquiries from confused fishing club members after hearing of the rāhui.
He said a number of fishers were frustrated they could not fish on the river yet, as the Government had said they were allowed to do so in alert level 3.
“We were very excited because everyone has cabin fever, there’s a lot of mental health issues around being locked up and this would give people a great opportunity to get out there,” he said.
“We were hoping the river would be part of a recovery for people, to nourish and sustain people that might be out of work, where they could go down and catch fish.“
Curiously, the report goes on to say:
While Fish and Game did not have legal power to enforce a rāhui, the organisation was directing anglers to Waikato-Tainui if they had questions.
Does this mean Waikato-Tainui has the legal power to enforce it?
Elsewhere around the country (according to Newshub) the Police
… have been forced to take action after a flurry of fresh complaints about unlawful community roadblocks in Northland.
The complaints centre around rural beach access roads in isolated communities in the Far North, where residents have been putting roadblocks in place to stop people from accessing the beach.
While the roadblocks had a legitimate function during the alert level 4 lockdown – helping uphold the rules during a period in which all non-essential travel was banned – at alert level 3, which came into force on Tuesday, Kiwis are permitted to drive to their closest beach.
The Prime Minister and the Police have responded to Point of Order’s questions about the legality of Maori community checkpoints but without specifying the statutory authority that might make them legal.
The Minister of Police, Stuart Nash, has simply ignored the email with the questions we sent to him.
The checkpoints seem to be regulated not by any statute but by some form of Police edict:
Police last week clarified its rules on community COVID-19 roadblocks after the furore surrounding these and other incidents.
“Police and other agencies remain responsible for ensuring that people comply with the restrictions under the different COVID-19 alert levels,” Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said.
The clarification means checkpoints must now have a police presence and must not restrict access for people moving through for legitimate purposes – which, under alert level 3, includes travel to the beach.
It’s a fair bet it includes travel to the Waikato and Waipa Rivers, too.
NOTE: The original version of this item said we had not received a reply from LGNZ. The reply arrived while our report was being drafted and posted.