Content Contributor, Meg Williams
The author acknowledges that she is pakeha and does not wish to speak over Maori voices. If you have any issues with the content of this article, she invites you to please contact her.
As New Zealanders, we often pride ourselves on being a tolerant and progressive society. However, for a long time there has been a continuation of wartime injustice from the mid to late 1800s that still affects Tangata Whenua. Today, that injustice takes place in the form of the Public Works Act 1981.
The Public Works Act 1981 is a piece of legislation that sets out the circumstances under which the Government can take land for public use, such as roads, railways, land development, defence, irrigation, drainage, and national parks. Currently under the legislation, the Government and local authorities are empowered to acquire land required for both Government work and local work. This is of particular concern to Māori due to their extensive history of land loss, leaving Māori feeling as though the tiny fragments of land they have left are still slipping through their fingers.
In 1865, 99% of the South Island had already been purchased from Māori. Approximately 4 million acres of Māori land on the North Island went on to be confiscated during the land wars of the 1860s, and a further 8 million acres were passed to European ownership between 1865 and 1890. By 1890, Māori owned only 40% of the North Island. Over the 1900s a proportion of that land had been gifted to the Crown for purposes such as the building of schools, but Māori land was predominately taken for public works purposes over that period.
Unfortunately, despite New Zealand’s brutal history of raupatu and the New Zealand government’s obligation to adhere to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Māori interests have always been given a low priority in public works legislation. Māori became concerned about the loss of their land by the late 1850s. Legislation such as the Native Land Purchase Ordinance 1846 was set up to “protect” Māori, but this Act was eventually used against Māori in the 1860s when it was used by the Crown to force Māori land owners to give up their land in the Wairarapa sale, when Māori would have preferred to rent the land to the Crown instead. About 150 years later, the current Act still excludes any specific requirement to consider Māori interests, which is particularly concerning considering the history of unjust confiscations of Māori land. It has been estimated that by the year 2000, Māori held only a mere 4% of the North Island. Today much of the land taken for public works purposes during the 1900s has still never been given back to Māori after the original purposes had been fulfilled.
Past reports from the Waitangi Tribunal have also expressed concern, and, while not necessarily saying that there should not be public works legislation at all, they have questioned how the Crown can use its right to govern in the public interest to override the Crown’s obligation to protect Māori interests, as guaranteed in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. One such report was the Te Maunga Railways Land Report, which emphasised that compulsory taking provisions do, in fact, cut across the Tiriti guarantee of rangatiratanga.
Raupatu is thus still very much a live issue here in the 21st century, and the Public Works Act 1981 is still proving to be somewhat of a monster to Tangata Whenua. In fact, only in the past few years did well-known New Zealand author Patricia Grace and her whānau have to fight in the courts against the compulsory acquisition of her ancestral land via the Public Works Act. There has arguably been a failure on the part of the Government to accommodate for the nature of Māori title and the issues that arise from that nature, as well as a failure to protect Māori interests with regard to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. This has resulted in the continued fragmentation of Māori land and “contributed towards the still evidently strongly held belief among many Māori that public works takings of Māori land are a continuation of wartime confiscations with all the sense of bitterness and injustice that this implies.”
Upcoming: Later this month, the author will speak with Greens MP Catherine Delahunty about her member’s Bill which aims to stop Māori land confiscations under the Public Works Act.
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