200 consecutive days of passive resistance
Pakeha Support Ngawha
Kaitiaki at the noho rangimarie at Ngawha have weathered 200 consecutive days of passive resistance to the desecration of their whenua.
Kaitiaki have been camping in an area between two fences at the main entrance to the construction site since December 6 last year.
An army of earthmoving machinery has been at work for an astonishing 18 months, in an attempt to prepare a viable building platform in the old lakebed site. A nearby hill has been flattened to provide fill, but foundations have still not been laid.
Estimates for the new prison have risen from $80 million to $137 million.
A select committee review of the project found irregularities in the contracts which meant the department will absorb costs caused by unexpected environmental conditions.
The 200-day milestone was passed on Monday with the prospect of eviction imminent after Department of Corrections senior staff unilaterally withdrew from an agreement brokered last year which allowed protesters to occupy.
The condition to this agreement was that work at the site would not be disrupted. The pact also saw police drop charges against 37 people arrested on June 4 last year.
Despite the fact that those at the noho rangimarie have not disrupted work at the site, project leader John Hamilton has called for the eviction.
Mr Hamilton has been associated with the ill-fated project for several years. It was he and other senior staff that made the decision to drop their own process and buy the unsuitable site at the eleventh hour. Officials had prepared a list of 84 preferred sites in Tai Tokerau, which did not include the current site.
A nearby site was 42 on the list, but Ngati Rangi owners refused to sell. With deadlines pending Mr Hamilton decided to jump the fence and buy, at an inflated price, the property next door from a young farming couple. Why the entire list of 84 sites was rejected has never been explained.
Mr Hamilton was also involved in rejecting a Ngati Hine offer of land and shared Maori management of a prison on land at Motatau. The reasons why the offer was rejected have also never been made public. However rehabilitation concepts inherent in the Ngati Hine plan have since surfaced in the departments 'own' plans.
In the subsequent legal resistance, it is alleged that Mr Hamilton spoke to at least one of the appellants in regard to what it may cost for them to drop appeals.
Under his management the Environment Court case which the department pursued to overturn the Northland Regional Council's original rejection of the project, drew on Maori consultants from elsewhere to counter Ngapuhi cultural evidence. Having won in that forum, which admitted it could not consider Maori spiritual beliefs, Mr Hamilton was part of a team that then sought exorbitant costs from the Maori litigants.
The Waitangi Tribunal had ruled in 1993 that ten different groupings had the right to kaitiaki status in the Ngawha geothermal area. The department consulted with just one of the groupings, exacerbating a local grievance initiated by the Maori Land Court last century.
Mr Hamilton has been giving evidence against kaitiaki in the Kaikohe District Court as recently as last week. Few of those arrested have been charged with any offence, with the court routinely dismissing cases for insufficient evidence or faulty procedure.
Police have been so desperate that last week they arrested one man for trespass, at his own home.
This then, is the local history of the man who has now unilaterally decided to end a tripartite agreement between Te Whanau o Ngawha, the police, and the department, which has lasted 200 days. By his own admission, he had no knowledge of the extent of the incident that sparked his renewed interest in the noho.
In an interview last week he said he did not know the time a contained fire was lit in a derelict ute left on the noho several kilometres from the construction site (5am), or how long it was before anyone thought to call the police (7am).
The date, June 4, may also have escaped his notice. It was the anniversary of one of the saddest days in recent cultural relations in Aotearoa, which involved the arrests of seven Ngapuhi kaumatua, one of whom was hospitalised after the event. Women and children were held in cells with police dogs, and out-of-town police were said to act in a manner reminiscent of some of the worst known during the 1981 tour. A popular song, called Seven Kaumatua, now memorialises the event.
Mr Hamilton in retrospect may consider this year's commemoration quite muted, in relation to the damage done to Ngapuhi and the nation's honour that day.
Kaitiaki however say that department officials had told them early in May that they would be evicted by the end of that month. This sort of psychological gameplay is nothing new - those at the noho have been experiencing it from day one.
The new Corrections Minister, the Rt. Hon. Paul Swain, is in an unenviable position. Mr Hamilton is a senior advisor and no doubt a public servant of many years' standing. It would be tempting to delegate the call to evict in the absence of any opposing view. But such a delegation would amount to a serious abrogation of responsibility on the minister's part. Mr Swain must not rely on the views of one official with such a track record in community relations, with so much to gain from an eviction.
This week, however, the minister has had the benefit of hearing from many supporters of the noho rangimarie. It is now a case of 'kia tupato'. The noho is symbolising for many not just the responsibility for protecting land deemed sacred to some Ngapuhi, but the freedom of assembly, of peaceful protest, itself.
Add to this the dissatisfaction with our country's rate of incarceration - second only to the USA in international terms - and the minister faces a diverse range of lobbyists. Politicians from Act's Muriel Newman to the Greens' Nandor Tanczos have tried to expose the futility of the Ngawha project to a rapid succession of Corrections ministers, starting in the days of Simon Upton.
To no avail. Last week however a new voice was added to the chorus. John Tamihere in his vision-for-Maori speech predicts that rehabilitation will be so successful that in ten years the Ngawha prison will be redundant and turned into Tai Tokerau's first university.
This view seems to fly in the face of all past and current reality about recidivism rates.
It would take a bold and visionary Government indeed to abandon the prison plan at this stage, and build the university instead. But that is exactly what those at the noho are representing - justice on another level, being seen to be done.
The dispossessed of Tai Tokerau, and
honourable kawanatanga, demand nothing less.