Losing Maori support too high a price for Key, but he remains staunch

A year ago the Prime Minister used a trip to New York to announce that 620,000sq km of sea around the islands would be closed forever to fishing and ocean-floor mining.

The United Nations General Assembly learned about the sanctuary plan before New Zealand was told, and even before John Key informed his own caucus.

This failure to consult is one element in the row engulfing the conservation project, and is of the Government’s own making. It has emerged that Hollywood film-maker and Titanic director James Cameron, US Secretary of State John Kerry and an American environmental lobby all encouraged the sanctuary plan, which has fostered a view that ministers bowed to foreign pressure to create the vast protected area. Whatever the case, the political management of what was meant to be a conservation showstopper has been mediocre.

The dispute with the Maori Party is more fundamental. Under legislation creating the sanctuary, fishing rights and compensation were ruled out. The Cabinet concluded that while Te Ohu Kaimoana, the Maori fisheries commission, held fishing rights under the 1992 fisheries settlement, it was not entitled to compensation because tribes did not take fish from the Kermadecs.

Maori take the view that the 1992 agreement, known as the Sealord deal, confirmed a property right. This was how the settlement was framed at the time, and why it had the support of all tribes as it was seen as full and final. Te Ohu filed claims in court as long ago as March arguing the sanctuary extinguished the property right and emerged without consultation.

The Maori Party has moved in behind Te Ohu, forcing the Government to put the legislation on hold while it searches for a political solution. Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell, while stopping short of saying the dispute was a coalition breaker, declared that the sanctuary’s impact on Treaty rights was “very serious”.

The last-minute stumbles suggest that the hoped-for November declaration of the sanctuary will pass without the status of the ocean changing. There are suggestions that a compromise could be hammered out, with the legislation preserving fishing rights and affected iwi voluntarily agreeing not to fish within the sanctuary area for a set time.

Iwi argue that other Pacific sanctuaries allow for sustainable fishing, but Environment Minister Nick Smith says the Government is reluctant to make an exception and undermine the very idea of a protected area.

The Government would not be in this pickle if it had engaged with Te Ohu, its support partner the Maori Party, and even commercial fishing interests from the outset. Hubris is a quality which politicians embrace at their peril.

Next year, a percent here and a percent there will make a huge difference.  National can not afford to put Maori off-side while a clearly hostile group of Maori are making a big play for power.

In the past, National has backed out quickly when it found itself in trouble.  But as we’ve seen with the Flag Referendum, that only works if it is a subordinate minister’s reputation on the line.  When it comes to John Key himself, I’ll do – or die – by his position.

At an absolute minimum, they need to manage this issue away so it becomes a decision to be made after the next elections.  The heat needs to come out of it and Maori given the idea they have all but won.

Even though the sanctuary is a good idea, it is bad politics.  Once again Key chooses to die in a ditch over something that doesn’t matter.


– NZ Herald

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