New Zealand's Labour government now stands toe-to-toe with a racially contentious issue that may decide its fate in the next national election. The issue: Maori (indigenous islanders') ownership of coastal fisheries.
Last month, Waitangi Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body set up by the government to handle Maori claims, held that the Muriwhenua tribes could rightfully claim ownership of fishing resources in an area of the North Island. Indeed, the tribunal found that the Waitangi Treaty of 1840 (establishing British rule here) gave Maoris ``full, exclusive, and undisturbed possession of their fisheries as long as they wished. ...''
The tribunal's report calls for financial relief and an overhaul of the government's control of fishing resources. Its recommendations:
Set a precedent for other Maori fishing claims extending to the 200-mile limit and covering some 70 percent of waters fished by the $650 million fishing industry.
Give the Maoris another win (under this government) in their quest to restore vast land, forestry, and fishing rights agreed on in the 148-year-old Waitangi Treaty.
Give fresh impetus to negotiations already under way between government officials and Maoris to settle differences over ownership of fisheries.
But some New Zealanders feel the Labour government is moving too fast, allowing ``a well-orchestrated takeover of the assets of this country in the most undemocratic manner,'' said Bob Martin, chairman of the Federation of Commerical Fishermen, in huge ads placed in major papers.
Rather than creating a partnership between races (12.5 percent of the population is Maori), some fear the Waitangi Treaty is dividing the nation. Such concerns are not unprecedented. ``Every Labour government has been vulnerable on this score because they're more liberal on Maori affairs than the National Party,'' says Claudia Orange, author of a book on the Treaty of Waitangi.
``I'm quite sure this present Labour government will be doing some public backpedaling when election comes around in 1990.''
Backpedaling may already have begun, says Sir Graham Latimer, chairman of the New Zealand Maori Council and one of several Maori leaders negotiating a settlement.
A working party of government and Maori representatives has agreed that a national fisheries commission should be established, equally managed and controlled by the Maori and government members. It also says a jointly owned Fishing Corporation should be set up, its assets being New Zealand's inland and offshore fisheries.
But when the working party's deadline of June 30 was reached, several main sticking points remained. The major obstacle is ownership stakes in the corporation. Maori leaders want a 50 percent equity stake - 10 percent now, adding 2.5 percent per year for 16 years. They argue the Waitangi Treaty justifies 100 percent, but this would be impractical and they would give up half.
Government representatives propose a 29 percent equity stake for Maoris. They calculate that Maoris own all inland fisheries (19 percent of total fisheries), and based on current Maori makeup of the nation's population, an additional 12.5 percent ownership in the remaining deepwater fisheries (10 percent of the total fisheries).
The fishing industry isn't happy with the solutions proposed. ``We reject totally both Maori and Crown proposals,'' says Greg Billington, deputy chief executive of the Fishing Industry Board. If fishermen must give Maoris their fishing quotas, they want the government to buy them out at market price.
Maori leaders say any disruption to fishing will be minimal. Some fishermen have overspent and are ``looking for the Crown to bail them out,'' says Mr. O'Regan.
Last week, Maori leaders met with Cabinet ministers. This week, fishing industry representatives talk with the government. They hope for a solution by October - the start of fishing season.