Why Maori grievance settlements are not “full and final” – and how they could be.
From the time of its election in 2008 this government has done one thing consistently – pay out large sums of taxpayers’ money to supposedly achieve “full and final” settlements of a plethora of Maori grievances. Almost every week the galleries of Parliament are filled by one group of Maori or another who proceed to sing beautifully as the Bill settling “their” grievance, supposedly once and for all, is passed into law. But that won’t in fact be the end of it, and all the players know it.
First some history. In the 1940’s the Labour government of the day made real and genuine efforts to settle Maori grievances which had been festering for years – and they had been, despite the claims of some on the right that “grievance” is very recent phenomenon. To take just one example, it is quite true that since their land was confiscated after the Land Wars of the 1860’s, Tainui had been bitterly protesting what they claimed was unjust and unlawful confiscations of land. And they were right.
Back in 1926, the government of the day set up the Sim Commission – chaired by a [then] Supreme Court Judge – to investigate claims of unjust land confiscations in the Waikato, Bay of Plenty, and Taranaki. Its report was released in 1927, and recommended compensation of about $500,000 per annum in today’s money be made. For twenty years, nothing happened, and the grievances festered through another generation.
Then came the Waikato-Maniapoto Maori Claims Settlement Act of 1946, which gave force to an agreement reached personally between Prime Minister Peter Fraser and Princess Te Puea. In his biography “Te Puea”, Michael King describes the settlement negotiations, and in particular the final session, at which Fraser agreed to pay 5000 pounds (a million dollars today) per year for ever, and an additional 1000 pounds per year for 45 years, commencing in 1947. Similar Acts were passed around the same time “settling” the claims by Taranaki iwi and Ngai Tahu. All of those settling Acts were overturned less than 50 years later.
It is now claimed that: 1) the settlements were negotiated with the wrong people; and/or 2) they were for trifling sums; and/or 3) the sums were eroded by inflation. As to the first, it didn’t get any higher than the PM on one side, and the most respected Maori leader of her day on the other. As to the “trifling sums” claim, that is clearly nonsense. It is certainly true that 6000 pounds in 1946 was not worth anything like the same amount thirty or forty years later because of inflation. But anyone who retired on a fixed income before inflation became a phenomenon had that problem. It simply wasn’t considered at the time.
Fast forward into the 90’s, and the Tainui and other iwi convinced the government of the day that the “settlements” of 50 years earlier weren’t settlements at all; the whole issue was revisited, and millions of taxpayer dollars were paid. Again, the new settlements were given force in legislation – the laws passed in the 1940’s simply being repealed because they were no longer convenient.
But we did not learn the lessons of the 1940’s, and we still haven’t. Those prior settlements could simply be written out of existence because the laws which gave force to them were not entrenched; they could be repealed by any government able to muster a simple majority, as any government can.
Now, twenty years on from the settlements of the 90’s, were are still “settling” grievances, and still passing laws which can be repealed when the next generation decides to have a crack. The Attorney General claimed on National Radio recently that the current settlements will not be revisted, yet again, in 40 years time. In making that claim, he is at best being disingenuous.
Firstly neither he nor anyone else knows what will happen in 40 years – the more honest Maori leaders are now admitting that no generation can bind the next. Secondly, Finlayson is well aware that the legislation he sponsors now is no more legally durable than that passed 50 years ago – these most recent laws can also be repealed by any future government with a simply majority.
There is at least a possible solution – entrenching the laws being passed with gay abandon so they cannot be repealed without a “supermajority” of – say – 75% of MP’s in favour. Or if we really want to be serious, unless there is a popular referendum with a similar majority. While legal academic opinion is divided on just how effective such entrenchment attempts would be, it would at least be a signal that this government was serious; that the settlements of the last 20 years were intended to be full and final, that this was accepted by the grievants, and that any attempt to reopen the can of worms would simply be a venal attempt to get more money.
Why hasn’t this government entrenched its “settling” Bills? There are various answers, none of them complimentary. Finlayson and his ilk simply cannot argue, when we go down this path again, that everything was done at the time to finally close the books. Until that is done – as well as our constitutional arrangements allows – none of the settlements now being made can be considered “full and final”. And the Attorney General knows it.
I agree with David Garrett that you can not guarantee what people may try to do in 50 years. You can’t pass a law banning people from advocating something. However there are a number of reasons why I think the current settlements will be durable, which I’ll do a separate post on at some stage.