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Crunch time for the Maori Party

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 15/09/2016 Peter Wilson, Political Writer

The Maori Party is between a rock and a hard place over the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, and it's not alone, says NZ Newswire political writer Peter Wilson.

The government is being blamed for failing to consult Maori before Prime Minister John Key announced the sanctuary at the United Nations a year ago.

The Greens are desperately trying to reconcile their support for the legislation that creates it without upsetting Maori.

Labour is trying to stay cool and avoid getting tangled up in the problems around something it campaigned on in the last election.

Key didn't expect any of this would happen.

"I thought it would be pretty much universally supported by everyone," he said on Thursday.

Now he's facing criticism for being naive and failing to perceive the inherent danger in doing anything that can transgress Maori rights.

But to be fair, he was announcing a great concept and it did receive widespread support at the time.

So the government went ahead and drafted legislation to set up one of the biggest ocean sanctuaries in the world - 620,000 square kilometres 1000km north-east of New Zealand which is home to numerous endangered species.

In March, the bill passed its first reading unanimously.

Now voices are raised in strident protest because no one will be allowed to fish in the sanctuary and Maori say that cuts across the 1992 fisheries settlement.

The settlement transferred 10 per cent of the New Zealand fishing quota to Maori, shareholdings in fishing companies and $50 million cash.

Maori have never fished in the sanctuary area and say they don't particularly want to in future.

What they want is to continue to hold the right to fish there.

Environment Minister Nick Smith says that's not on.

He's been in the hot seat negotiating with Te Ohu Kaimoana, the Maori Fisheries Trust, which represents iwi interests.

"In my discussions with Te Ohu Kaimoana, the only Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary legislation they were prepared to accept was one that the fishing ban specifically exempted them and enabled them, at their choice, to fish at any time in the future," Smith told parliament.

"In my view that would not be a Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary that had integrity, and that is why we were not able to reach agreement."

The trust is taking a hard line on this. It's going to court, it's going to lodge a complaint with the Waitangi Tribunal, and it's calling on the Maori Party to withdraw from its support agreement with the government.

It claims widespread support among iwi, and it has put the Maori Party in a very difficult position.

Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox, its co-leaders and its two MPs, have to be staunch in their defence of Maori rights.

At the same time, the last thing they want is to walk away from the support agreement.

Doing so would render them powerless and, after a brief media frenzy, invisible.

Remember Hone Harawira and his Mana Movement

Key, who understands the Maori Party's predicament, offered it the chance to begin fresh negotiations with the government.

Flavell and Fox have accepted and their plight has been eased - for a while.

The government and the Maori Party will seek a compromise.

It's being suggested the right to fish could be maintained, linked to an undertaking set in law that no fishing will take place.

That might seem to make a nonsense of the situation, but could satisfy Maori sensitivities about treaty settlement breaches.

Contrary to what the trust says, this isn't anywhere near as volatile as the foreshore and seabed dispute.

Key wants cool heads to prevail and if they do - which is by no means certain - a solution will be found.

The Greens have a particular problem because they must, by their very nature, support the creation of the sanctuary.

They can't pull their votes on the legislation, and those votes give the government a solid majority for the bill regardless of what any other party does.

All they can do is continue to assert their support for the sanctuary while accusing the government of "stuffing it up" with Maori and demanding that the problem be fixed.

Labour isn't saying much.

Rino Tirikatene had a go at attacking Smith in parliament on Thursday and had Labour's 2014 manifesto thrown in his face.

Smith made sure the press gallery knew what was in it:

"Labour will: Create a world sanctuary area in the EEZ around the Kermadec Islands by way of giving this area marine reserve status."

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