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Flagship Māori Party land reform bill left to voters' mercy

Flagship Māori Party land reform bill left to voters' mercy

By Pattrick Smellie

July 7 (BusinessDesk) - The Māori Party has abandoned its attempt to pass sweeping reforms to the law covering collectively owned Māori land before the Sept. 23 election, saying the issue can't be rushed, despite almost two decades of consultation on the controversial Te Ture Whenua Māori Bill.

The backdown is a tactical defeat for the party's co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell. However, the party appears to have decided that passing the bill under urgency would have more harmful politically than risking its abandonment if there is a change of government.

Many Māori are sensitive both to changes in law relating to Māori land and remain resentful of the then Labour government's 'foreshore and seabed' legislation, passed in 2004 and described at the time as the first Maori land grab of the 21st century.

Instead, the Ture Whenua bill will continue to progress through the House, but without any realistic prospect of being passed in its entirety before the House sits for the last time before the election, on Aug. 17.

Flavell announced the decision in an interview with a Māori news service, leaving party president Tukoroirangi Morgan to issue a press statement explaining the decision, which saw the Māori Party turn down a government offer to force the bill's passage with urgent sittings before the election.

“As Māori we don’t rush matters of taonga tuku iho, so I applaud the minister for refusing to pass Te Ture Whenua Māori Bill through Parliament in one or two days,” said Morgan. "Now we have more time to make even more improvements to Māori land reforms. We must get it right and that’ll happen if our people make the government Māori on Sept. 23."

Labour's Mika Whaitiri said the reform process had been "a shambles from the outset" and the bill's slow-tracking was "a victory for Māori landowners" which would only be guaranteed by a change of government.

“This has been the Māori Party’s flagship policy and a leadership test for Te Ururoa Flavell as Māori Development Minister; a test he has failed," said Whaitiri, who has led Labour's attack on the reforms, which are intended to improve the legal status of collectively owned Māori land, in part because that should make it easier to borrow against for economic development.

“This process has exposed a minister who is out of his depth, and totally out of touch." said Whaitiri.

Invoking "the treachery of the Labour Party which in one day passed the foreshore and seabed law that confiscated Māori land rights", Morgan defended the more cautious approach as essential to ensuring "an enduring and solid legacy for our children yet to come".

The current bill has been 17 years in the making, a party strategist, Hinerangi Barr, wrote recently.

"Māori landowners have repeatedly asked for more control over the governance of their land so it is easier for them to use as they see fit, while retaining its intergenerational ownership," Barr said.

The proposed reforms "strengthen protections around land protection".

"How then can opponents call this a modern-day land grab?"

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