Reforming Our Whenua

By Ellipsister, Co-Editor

Are the changes to Te Ture Whenua Māori a land grab of seismic proportions, as declared by some commentators? Or a reform that will enable Māori landowners to use their whenua, according to their needs and aspirations, as suggested by the review committee? 

First of all, let’s be clear – discussions on Māori land reform must have Māori at the centre. Conversations cloaked in partisanship or that centre Pākehā voices overlook the Māori context and often fuse our diverse perspectives into one.

In July 2015, I wrote about Te Ture Whenua Māori reforms during the nationwide consultation phase: Part 1: Te Ture Whenua Māori Reforms & Part 2: Te Ture Whenua Māori Reforms. However, since then a number of significant changes have been made to the exposure draft. In brief, those changes include:

  • Option for existing Māori trusts and incorporations to continue as the same entity they are now (i.e. do not need to go through cost of establishing a rangatōpu).
  • Removal of the managing kaiwhakarite provision;
  • Revision of the purpose and principles sections to better reflect the preamble of the existing Act;
  • Option for Whānau to obtain succession to land instead of having to form a whānau trust on intestate succession; and
  • Greater discretion accorded to the Māori Land Court when considering applications to remove the status of Māori freehold land (i.e. transfer from Māori to general).

We won’t know precisely what all the changes are until the Bill is introduced to the House around March 2016. What we can surmise is that the Review Committee has taken into account the concerns of submitters.

One of the arguments I see a lot is that the reforms will enable Māori landowners to transfer their land into general title more easily to sell off. Frankly, if that is how Māori landowners wish to deal with their land, that is their choice – whether we like it or not. However, given only about 4.75% of all the land in this country is dedicated Māori land, the presumption of an impending mass sell-off following the reforms reads more like partisan hyperbole than informed opinion.

Why?

Firstly, the Māori Land Court will retain oversight to ensure any sale or transfer is done in the spirit of Te Tiriti in order to protect and retain Māori land.

Secondly, in my experience, whānau who are considering selling, are often looking at selling their shares to those within the collective or to those with a whakapapa connection to the land block. Often the arguments insist that no Māori should ever sell their land. That is over-simplistic and is as much a constraint on our rangatiratanga over our land as the arguments they are opposing. Additionally, it ignores the reasons whānau may wish to sell their shares in land, for example, to obtain the capital necessary for home ownership. Getting finance to build on Māori land also requires a license to occupy so sometimes it might be in the interest of a whānau to sell their shares in their Māori land, and use the proceeds to build on general land, or to build on another piece of Māori land where they do have a license to occupy.

Thirdly, there is a preferred recipient tender included in the reforms. This means that there is a first right of refusal to Māori with a relevant connection to the land.

And lastly, contrary to what many are suggesting, the thresholds for sale or transfer have not been reduced – they are exactly the same as the thresholds in the existing act, and include the right of landowners to increase that threshold if they wish to do so.

A bugbear of mine is when commentators are vague and use language like:

The reality however is that the land will simply be opened up to those wishing to exploit the new lax regulations…All these changes will do is make it easier to sell that Maori land, not grow it

Here, the commentator avoids centering Māori as the affected party, pushing an agenda that does not serve Māori interests in land, but rather asserts his own interest in his own ideology. In the process, painting the landowners he speaks of wanting to protect as the greedy grubby little neo-liberals that he rejects. Remember, it is Māori land, meaning only Māori can decide how they will use it. If selling is their preferred option, then that is ultimately the decision of the Māori landowner subject to the prescribed process.

Another criticism made centres around the lack of funding available to assist Māori to develop our land. This is misinformed as there are a number of funding streams available to help Māori landowners collectively and individually including Māori homeowners on general land, to address their needs. For a detailed breakdown see the Māori Housing Network Investment Strategy and KiwiBank’s Kāinga Whenua loans scheme.

In Vote Māori 2015 the Government announced:

  • a total of over $7 million to improve housing outcomes for Māori by providing practical assistance to whānau and Māori housing projects
  • a total of $7 million for Māori Housing development
  • a total of over $3 million to assist Māori land owners improve the productivity of their land

The Minister of Māori Development explained that this means there is $8.8 million per annum for Māori housing in addition to the existing funding of around $7.5 million per annum, bringing the total amount to $16.2 million per annum in 2018-19. He also announced a new fund of $12.8 million over 4 years to help Māori landowners improve the utilisation of their land and a further $3.2 million per annum to support targeted initiatives in areas where land is significantly underutilised.

I am not suggesting that these measures are a full solution to meeting Māori housing and land use needs and aspirations. Nor am I suggesting that the reforms are immune from criticism. I just think they provide an avenue for Māori to achieve rangatiratanga over our land. Our identities as Māori are linked to our whenua, and as current or prospective Māori landowners it is our voices and our perspectives that matter in these reforms. The proposed Māori land reforms are practical measures not ideological ones. There are multiple issues to consider and many whānau in many different situations so it is vitally important that we are properly informed about what is proposed and what those changes will mean for us and for our land.

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