New Zealand foreshore and seabed controversy

From Academic Kids

The New Zealand foreshore and seabed controversy is a debate in the politics of New Zealand. It concerns the ownership of the country's foreshore and seabed, with many Maori groups claiming that Maori have a rightful claim to title. These claims are based around historical possession and the Treaty of Waitangi. On 18 November 2004, the government passed a law which gave ownership to the state. The law took effect on 17 January 2005.



The foreshore and seabed controversy was sparked when, on 19 June 2003, New Zealand's Court of Appeal ruled that Maori were entitled to "seek exclusive title" over the foreshore and seabed in the Maori Land Court. The ruling granted only the right to pursue ownership, not ownership itself, but the prospect of a successful claim created considerable hostility in many sectors of society. The Prime Minister, Helen Clark of the Labour Party, announced that the government would legislate to ensure public ownership of the foreshore and seabed.

This move received an angry reaction by many, particularly Maori, who saw it as a "land grab" or confiscation of Maori property. The Treaty of Waitangi guaranteed Maori tribes "full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties which they may collectively or individually possess", which many interpret as including the foreshore and seabed. The government's traditional viewpoint, that the foreshore and seabed were either unowned or owned by the state, was deemed an incorrect assumption by the Court of Appeal, which also found that no government legislation had ever "extinguished customary rights". A pressure group, Te Ope Mana a Tai, was formed to challenge the government's proposals.

At the same time, however, the government was strongly attacked by the opposition National Party, led by Don Brash. In sharp contrast to Te Ope Mana a Tai, the National Party claimed that the government's proposals were too favourable towards Maori. While the government's plan did indeed vest ownership in the state, they also incorporated provision for Maori to be consulted over matters relating to the foreshore and seabed. The National Party claimed that Maori were to be given too much control, and that the government was giving rights to Maori over and above those possessed by other New Zealanders.

Ongoing debate

Although under attack from both sides, the government chose to press forward with its legislation, believing that its "middle way" was the only means of satisfactorily resolving the controversy. Criticism of the government, both from Maori and from opposition parties, continued to intensify, and the government began to lose ground in opinion polls.

On January 27 2004, National Party leader Don Brash delivered a speech at Orewa that was highly critical of the government's policy towards Maori. Brash said that the government was showing strong favouritism to Maori, both in the foreshore and seabed debate and in many other areas of government policy. Brash's speech was condemned both by the government and by many Maori groups, but met with widespread approval from many other sectors of New Zealand society. Shortly afterwards, an opinion poll put the National Party ahead of the Labour Party for the first time in years.

The government was also facing serious internal debate over its proposed legislation. Many of the party's Maori MPs were deeply unhappy with the government's plans, and raised the possibility of breaking ranks to oppose the legislation in Parliament. This left the government unsure of whether it had a sufficient number of votes to pass its legislation through Parliament. In theory, the government had a narrow majority willing to support its proposed bill, with Labour, the Progressives, and United Future all prepared to vote in favour. If two of Labour's Maori MPs were to vote against the bill, however, it would fail. Moreover, any attempt to make the bill more favourable to these MPs would risk losing the support of United Future.

On 8 April 2004, it was announced that the centrist-nationalist New Zealand First party would give its support to the legislation. New Zealand First's price for this support was that ownership of the seabed and foreshore would be vested solely in the Crown, ending the concept of "public domain" (vesting ownership in the public at large rather than in the state) that United Future had promoted. United Future withdrew its support for the legislation, but New Zealand First provided sufficient votes to make this irrelevant. It is believed that Helen Clark preferred United Future's "public domain", and this was acknowledged by United Future leader Peter Dunne, but United Future could not provide enough votes to guarantee the bill's passage, forcing Labour to seek support elsewhere.

One of the strongest critics of the bill within the Labour Party was Tariana Turia, a junior minister. Turia indicated on a number of occasions that she might vote against the government's bill, but for a considerable time refused to give a final decision. It was made clear that voting against a government bill was "incompatible" with serving as a minister, and that doing so would result in Turia's dismissal from that role. Turia was encouraged to either abstain or simply be absent when the vote was taken. On 30 April 2004, however, Turia announced that she would vote against the legislation, and would resign (effective May 17 2004) from the Labour Party to contest a by-election in her electorate. She was dismissed from her ministerial post by the Prime Minister the same day. Another Labour MP, Nanaia Mahuta, eventually decided that she would also vote against the bill, but chose not to leave the Labour Party. Mahuta had no ministerial post to be dismissed from.

On 5 May 2004, a hikoi (a long walk or march — in this case, a protest march) arrived in Wellington. It had begun in Northland thirteen days earlier, picking up supporters as it marched towards the capital. The hikoi, which some estimated to contain fifteen thousand people by the time it reached Parliament, strongly opposed the government's plans, and was highly supportive of Tariana Turia's decision. Turia and her allies, believing that the time was right for an independent Maori political vehicle, established a new Maori Party. Many of Turia's supporters, such as Mana Motuhake leader Willie Jackson and Maori academic Pita Sharples, claim that Maori who formerly supported Labour will flock to the new party en masse. On the other hand, other commentators point to a poor track record for Maori parties in the past, and say that it will be difficult to unite diverse Maori opinion into a single group.


On 18 November 2004, the Labour/Progressive government passed the Foreshore and Seabed Act, which gave ownership to the state. Maori can, however, apply for "guardianship" of certain areas. The Act was highly contentious.

The government's foreshore and seabed bill passed its first vote in Parliament on 7 May 2004, backed by Labour, the Progressives, and New Zealand First. The National Party and ACT both opposed the bill, saying that it gave too much control to Maori, while United Future opposed it due to the removal of the public domain concept. The Greens, the only party in Parliament to take a position similar to that of the Maori protesters, also voted against the bill, saying that it overrode Maori rights and offered no guarantee that the land would not later be sold. Tariana Turia and Nanaia Mahuta both voted against the bill. The final vote tally was 65 in favour and 55 against. The Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Cullen, told Parliament that the bill "safeguards the seabed and foreshore for everyone", protecting the rights of both Maori and non-Maori. Opposition to the bill remained strong, however, and protests and criticism continued as the government's legislation progressed.

The bill's passage through its first vote meant that it was then considered by a special select committee of Parliament, which heard public submissions on the matter. The select committee gave its report in November, having allowed six months for submissions. The bill, slightly amended, passed its second vote on 17 November 2004 by the same margin as in the first vote. It was then considered by a Committee of the House (with Parliament sitting under urgency). It finally received its third vote on 18 November 2004. The final vote tally was 66 in favour and 54 against — Nanaia Mahuta, who had previously voted against, this time voted in favour.

On December 15, the legislation was modified slightly after it was realised that as it was written, the Act nationalised all council-owned land reclaimed from the sea. This includes areas such as Auckland's Britomart and Wellington's waterfront. This was not part of the intention of the act.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, after being asked by Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu to consider the legislation, issued a report on March 12 2005 stating that the foreshore and seabed legislation discriminates against Maori by extinguishing the possibility of establishing Maori customary title over the foreshore and seabed, and by not providing a means of redress. Tariana Turia and the Maori Party claimed this as a significant victory, although the report has not prompted any change in government policy.

Current situation

The foreshore and seabed issue, as part of the larger race relations debate, was one of the most significant points of contention in New Zealand politics at the time, and remains a significant issue for many people. The government's popularity was severely damaged by the affair, but most polls now show that it has recovered its support. The Maori Party, however, has made significant gains based on opposition to the government's legislation.

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