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Rural Landowners' Rights Under Threat

Rural Landowners' Rights Under Threat

By Gerry Eckhoff

In the 1960s an Iranian peasant observed that if the Shah of Iran could take land from the wealthy and give it to those without land, how much easier it would be for him to take it back again at his pleasure.

Such an observation goes to the heart of property rights and their contribution to civilised society.

The Government has determined to examine property rights with a view to redistributing or reinterpreting long-established principles and rights of private ownership.

The reference group set up by the Minister for Rural Affairs could well be seen as the stalking horse for a major review (albeit covertly) of just who is entitled to what rights when rural land access is considered.

When a Government appoints a committee of inquiry or reference group, it does so with great care. There is little doubt that members are often selected for their known views, to ensure, as far as possible, the desired outcome.

It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that the Prime Minister's influence over the reference group's make-up was significant, given her personal recreational interests, and the appointment of her personal guide, Gottlieb Braun-Elwart, to the group.

Access to rivers and the foreshore is the subject of huge controversy. Somewhat less controversial but of even more significance was clause (iii) of the reference group's terms of reference.

This referred to: "access onto private rural land to better facilitate public access to, and enjoyment of, New Zealand's national environment."

In other words, how to better regulate and possibly redistribute the existing property rights of every rural landowner. Presumably this is a much cheaper method of acquiring use without the public's need for responsibility, rates, liability and so on.

The reference group's interpretation of property rights was extraordinary. The group seems to believe the concept of exclusive use through ownership is now somehow subservient to societal demand for a "relationship" to, and with, all rural land.

Clearly the group believes a relationship to private property in urban areas is different from rural private property. Its logic is "content of the relationship is liable to change ... with the emergence of new economic or social condition". In other words, use and management through partnership with central and local government should be engaged to better reflect the prevailing political climate.

It is worth noting that central Government and local bodies, according to the report, are often reluctant to spend rates or taxpayer money on acquiring access that might have little benefit or value.

That comment tends to contradict the whole ethos behind the report and the need to review alleged problems associated with public access.

There are also many areas where the Department of Conservation is unwilling to improve access because of excessive public pressure on fragile ecosystems. That surely applies to private land as well.

The reference group seems to believe that access to private land should continue to be free, yet the cost of public access is real, as DOC knows. Traditionally, exclusive use or capture occurs with purchase.

Commercial recreation, for example, can happen only with exclusive use and the right to exclude, where freeloading has the potential to destroy the viability of an enterprise.

Inability or unwillingness to pay is not, nor ever has been, justification for forcing public access. Many golf courses exclude the public on the basis of price. Skiing precludes many for the same reason.

The impact of an ever-increasing population on public resources must be addressed.

The foreshore is plundered of its publicly owned resource regularly despite regulation to control "take". Popular walking tracks are regularly defiled by human waste.

Is unfettered access, therefore, the way to guarantee sustainable use of such areas?

The protective instinct of landowners applies to the preservation of waterways, bush reserves and so on as much as it does to their livestock.

Landowners also demand the right to quiet enjoyment of the fruits of their labours - an aspect glossed over by the reference group.

Interestingly, the group's report has a tone of reverence for Maori land rights versus the rights of non-Maori. It says a code would need to be developed in a way that meets the needs and views of tangata whenua.

Why should Maori land access issues be any different to non-Maori? Tangata whenua, after all, means people of the land - those who have put down their roots. Surely that applies to all who have committed themselves and their capital to their land.

The report expresses concern for the potential desecration of taonga or sacred places, which also applies to non-Maori landowners.

No attention is paid to the significance of inter-generational attachment to land by rural families and the pride taken by such families in their preservation of outstanding natural features, in spite of past government incentives to burn, plough or fell such areas.

The ability for personal enjoyment of such places is not a public right but a privilege extended when deemed appropriate.

The inescapable conclusion of the report is the political interest of the Government in ensuring free public access to private land.

This is based on little more than the mercenary desire to achieve electoral advantage from a powerful lobby group. Yet no poll has ever been published to show society's view on this issue.

Even more concerning is the reference group's apparent desire to transfer a set of rights enjoyed by landowners for hundreds of years to a public grouping without compensation.

The transfer of one set of rights to another (public) grouping does not necessarily transfer obligations and responsibilities, as the reference group seems to imply.

Inevitably, the Department of Conservation will pick up those requirements and costs, not the tramper or fisher. In other words, the public will pay for the pleasure of those with political influence. Gone will be that responsibility, accountability and obligation which is being met by rural landowners.

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