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The Contemporary Pacific 15.1 (2003) 183-187

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Maori Issues

Margaret Mutu
Department of Maori Studies, University of Auckland

In a year dominated by the approaching general election, Maori have watched the government, including Maori members of parliament, steer away from any public debate on Maori issues. In recent years, Maori members have come under sustained attack from the conservative opposition and the mainstream media whenever they have attempted to articulate Maori aspirations for greater control over their lives. Calls from non-Maori lending support to those aspirations generally receive little or no media coverage. So on Waitangi Day in February 2002, when Pakeha groups at Waitangi, including the Green Party, publicly stated their support for Maori sovereignty, it went unreported in mainstream media. Several days later it was partially reported when the Green's leader signaled a softening of the stance on Maori sovereignty because "many people find the term very frightening." Yet even the Ministry for Maori Development, Te Puni Kokiri, advocated restructuring local government to ensure that Maori have greater control over their own affairs. In the final weeks before the July 2002 election, as right-wing parties were attacking the Treaty of Waitangi and promoting a cut-off date for all Maori claims against the Crown, the largest mainstream newspaper ran a story on Maori views of Maori sovereignty. It had to admit that a significant number of Maori interviewed wanted Maori sovereignty recognized, yet the article concentrated on reporting Maori giving reasons for why it should not be recognized.

Mainstream media coverage of Maori issues has continued to be a matter of concern on several occasions in the past year. Claims that the media were Maori bashing surfaced on several occasions. A television documentary on the "Treaty Industry" interviewed a disgruntled historian and two disaffected former employees of the Crown Forestry Rental Trust, a [End Page 183] body that administers many millions of dollars of rental paid on Crown-owned forests, and allocates some of its income towards the research and settlement of Maori claims to those forests. The trust has been under investigation by the Maori Affairs select committee for corruption. The television program sensationalized an alleged "Maori mafia" and attempted to blame Maori for the parlous state of the settlements. Of the 908 claims registered with the Waitangi Tribunal over the past twenty-six years, fewer than 20 have resulted in any land being returned to the claimants or compensation being paid out. Furthermore, not a single claimant group has received all the land and compensation they are entitled to. In the past year the Labour-led coalition government has partially settled just one claim, that of Ngati Tama in the Taranaki region—where, the tribunal stated in its 1996 report, Maori had suffered a holocaust. Ngati Tama lost more than 30,000 hectares. The settlement returns just 1,870 hectares and 14.5 million dollars. The three other settlements achieved under the present government have been similarly mean-spirited.

Yet the "Treaty Industry" television program made no mention of the real reasons for the chronically slow and inadequate process of treaty claims settlement. The main reason is that every government in power over the past decade has refused to take any Maori advice on the need to radically reformulate its unfair and unjust settlement policy. Then there is the ongoing underfunding of the Waitangi Tribunal. There is also the pivotal role of the "experts" in the industry—the lawyers, historians, and government bureaucrats who seem content to prolong the process and charge exorbitant fees for as long as they can. The overwhelming majority of these people are non-Maori. Despite its lack of funding, the Waitangi Tribunal has intervened to try to speed up its hearings and reporting process, fast-tracking the Gisborne district hearings through in seven months in contrast to others that have taken more than four years.

The media coverage of the kidnapping of the eight-month-old daughter of a lawyer and a High Court judge, both of whom are Maori, caused further consternation. The fact that the child had been adopted from within the...