Fast-tracking the removal of Māori rights

The erasure of many Māori voices for environmental and cultural heritage seems to be a key driver for the Fast-track Approvals Bill, which passed its first reading in Parliament on Thursday. The rhetoric that Māori retain their rights under the Bill, due to Treaty Settlements and customary title being recognised, belies the immensity of the changes.

You can’t even play tic-tac-toe with the two surviving rights – the remainder of the matrix of statutory protections for Māori will be legislatively blocked, making way for large infrastructure and development projects.

The coalition government has stated that existing Treaty Settlements and customary property rights will be respected. This obscures the reality that over two thirds of the existing avenues for Māori input to the statutory process for these projects are removed or minimised by this Bill.

It is imperative that the predominantly Pākehā and Tauiwi environmental movement sees part of its role as protecting Māori voices for the natural world, as well as protecting the natural world itself.

The time to end the false dichotomy between our different voices for nature was yesterday. Sadly, a survey of the press-releases by four prominent environmental groups in response to the Fast-track Approvals Bill, shows that three out of four failed to mention the extreme impacts on the Māori voice for nature. Globally there is a trend towards the incorporation of indigenous voices as the guiding light for environmental advocacy and action.

These groups must speak up loudly and repeatedly, to draw attention to the blatant bypassing of indigenous rights and values as part of the decision-making process for these projects. While Māori voices are often disadvantaged in our society, they at least have a statutory basis for input, even if it is often ignored. These statutory provisions must be protected as much as the environment we depend on.

There is a long-standing gulf between Pākehā and Māori environmental ethics which have different cultural origins. However, the differences pale in the face of the assaults on the environment we are about to witness. Ultimately the outcomes we each seek are very similar – thriving biodiversity, clean living waters and a natural world whose lifeforce is intact and can support us.

The motivations to reach these results differ, but this should be seen as a strength rather than a divisive factor. Diversity of thought, perspectives and voices is as valuable to our social ecosystem as is biodiversity to the natural ecosystems, of which we are also a part.

I have worked as a consultant with multiple iwi, to table their values at various points in the RMA process. The values they consistently put forward have overwhelmingly been recognition of our interconnectedness with this fragile environment we live in, concern for the impacts on ecosystems, taonga species and the mauri (lifeforce) of natural systems, and upholding their serious inter-generational responsibilities of kaitiakitanga.

Of course Māori have multiple drivers and there are many voices. The Treaty Settlement entities – almost the only Māori organisations retaining formal input to the Fast-track Approvals process – have been forced into a capitalist model by the very nature of Treaty Settlements.

Post Settlement Governance Entities have responsibilities to maintain and grow their capital, and many also advocate very strongly for the environment, a balance which is inherently challenging.

To be clear, Treaty Settlements are not the Treaty. They are partial redress as a result of historical breaches of the Treaty – amounting to approximately 1-2% of the value of what was lost.

Other continuing rights under te Tiriti, as recognised in legislation, have been bulldozed to create a freeway for these infrastructure and development projects. To the best of my knowledge, the only other exception in the Bill to the effective erasure of meaningful Māori involvement and minimisation of the effects of the Māori voice is in rare instances where customary title has been established – a high legal threshold to meet.

Although the Māori voice has been given status by legislation, it is rapidly being eroded. In the last week, seven of the nine hard-fought for protections of Māori interests have arbitrarily been removed or minimised by the coalition government for the most significant pending infrastructure and development projects. That leaves but two squares, and no one can win a tic-tac-toe game with only two in a row.

Pākehā voices are inherently privileged in our society. We must use them wisely to draw attention to and condemn the consequences of this Bill for both the environment and its indigenous people.