Kermadec Kerfuffle – Government’s disrespect for Treaty Partner harms us all

Susan GuthrieTreaty

Last week the fishing industry waded into the stoush between prominent Maori leaders and Environment Minister Hon Dr Nick Smith over the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary. The issue with iwi highlights yet again how far New Zealand has to go to capture the 21st century economic benefits created by the Treaty of Waitangi signed 176 years ago. On the other hand the fishing industry’s position looks more like naked self-interest, and must not become a precedent that blocks future marine protection.

Rather than work collaboratively on the most important issue we face – generating growth from our fantastic natural environment without wrecking it – public figures are squabbling over who said what when. Don’t get me wrong, both sides in this latest dispute have good reason to be cross (at least in the case of iwi and Government), but those differences should be quickly set aside so we can focus on the more important issue of how to generate real progress in New Zealand.

Quota Management System explainer

The Quota Management System gives quota owners the rights to harvest a certain amount of a certain fish in a certain area. Under the ‘Sealord’ deal, Maori were given 20% of the available quota – iwi have reinvested and increased this share over time.

The quota in the Kermadec region has been set at a very low level for decades, and as a result any fishing has been small. So why the kerfuffle? The Government is proposing to protect an enormous area, and clearly this is being seen a precedent for future attempts at marine protection. It is a question of principle and process.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the legislation that relates to the Kermadec decision and I can only rely on the Minister’s statement that nothing in the Treaty-related legislation prevents him from creating a marine sanctuary. Likewise the fishing industry is claiming that under international law the ocean has to be used to maintain our sovereignty – yet those same international laws mandate some parts of the ocean are protected.

However, the Minister is on weak ground when he says that the decision isn’t costly to quota holders because they have never fished in the area. Anybody with an ounce of financial nous knows that the option of being able to do something has real value, whether you’ve exercised that option in the past is irrelevant. So in that sense the decision does impose an economic cost to those with fishing quota – including iwi.

However that option value shouldn’t be over-stated. Fish stocks are mobile and, for many species, sanctuaries operate as nurseries – boosting fish numbers in areas of ocean that are commercially fished. As noted above the Kermadec area has traditionally been lightly fished, and under international law government must protect some parts of the ocean.

There is also another substantial economic benefit to iwi from the decision to create the marine sanctuary. What the Minister could have usefully said was that the sanctuary adds to New Zealand’s ‘green credentials’ which, if used cleverly, will translate directly to price premiums for New Zealand products, more opportunities for tourism etc. I’d expect demand for processed fish products sourced from New Zealand to increase because of the association with responsible marine management represented by the Kermadec Sanctuary. And that, of course, directly translates to potential benefits for the holders of fishing quota – including iwi. So, on balance, in my view, claims of economic harm are over-stated. 

A question of mana

If the economic harm done to iwi is modest (and anyway, the Minister claims that the legislation allows sanctuaries to be created without compensating anyone who maybe harmed) the only thing left to debate amounts to power, authority, mana: in other words, who should have been included in the process that came to the decision. And here, it seems to me, iwi leaders have every reason to be fed up and the government should be roundly criticised. While local iwi were consulted, through the QMS all iwi have an interest in the Kermadecs. The government had every opportunity to talk with Maori and no good reason not to.

It’s understandable that the government wanted to make a splash with the sanctuary announcement – marine sanctuaries can boost the brand value of NZ-Inc only if the world knows about them. But this was an example of the government’s marketers over stepping the mark (and in recent years there have been far too many instances of that for my liking – claims the OECD has nothing but praise for our immigration policies is a case in point).

The Minister can quote all the legislation he likes but the reality is that, just like all other indigenous people around the world, and as clearly intended in the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori have a unique interest in the environment. The majority of the New Zealand public have accepted this and the legal system acknowledges it consistently. By turning their back on this reality and not consulting widely with iwi (certainly consultation with local iwi appears to have occurred but that’s not enough) the government risks inciting wasteful, time-intensive and socially harmful legal action.

There is a bigger picture all of us should be pursing here. Around the world societies are struggling to live peacefully with each other and in harmony with their environment. New Zealand is fortunate that, by all accounts, we seem to be closer to the ideal than many. It’s not too much of a stretch to say some think of us as a ‘global nirvana’ (admittedly a somewhat grubby one as the Panama papers show). This status has real commercial value which, if we’re clever, we can exploit.

To the extent we have got something right, it is due in large part to the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty forced Maori and non-Maori to live alongside one another with a modicum of respect (not enough for Maori culture it has to be said) and out of that has evolved 21st century values, ideas, norms and ways of solving problems that are unique to this place and valuable on the global stage. The government should be helping us all to see and capitalise on these strengths, not blithely ignoring the Treaty partner and, as a result, providing ongoing cause for distrust and lack of faith – and bad international press that does none of us any good .


Kermadec Kerfuffle – Government’s disrespect for Treaty Partner harms us all was last modified: May 3rd, 2016 by Susan Guthrie
About the Author

Susan Guthrie

Susan is an economist who, prior to joining the Morgan Foundation in 2010, held various private and public sector roles. She has worked for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and the NZ Treasury, as an international economist in the financial sector in New Zealand and Hong Kong, and as an advocate for consumer rights. In 2011 she co-authored with Gareth Morgan ‘The Big Kahuna’, a book advocating tax and welfare reform for New Zealand and in 2014 she co-authored with Gareth ‘Are we there yet? the future of the Treaty of Waitangi’.