The struggle between partisans and opponents of a development project on land about three kilometres from Auckland Airport – around the village of Ihumātao, one of the earliest known sites of human settlement in New Zealand – has raised significant questions over Māori identity, land rights, poverty, class politics and race relations. A protest camp was established in 2016 by Māori who want to preserve their ancestral land, while other Māori support a deal to build houses there.
At first glance, it looks like a race issue, and then perhaps it begins to seem like a generational conflict, but on further investigation Ihumātao is about class power and rampant capitalism. It is about a push for “development” without respect for an archeologically significant site going back to the arrival of Māori in the 13th century (or before), in conflict with the will of the people of Ihumātao, and without any genuine regard for the real housing needs of Māori and working-class people.
Over many generations the people of Ihumātao and their neighbours cultivated thousands of hectares of intensive horticultural land, deploying highly sophisticated stoneworks to optimise conditions for crops which would not otherwise have thrived. When the Pākehā (Europeans) arrived in the mid-19th century to establish the new city of Auckland a few miles away, their need for food created a mutually beneficial trade, but as the number of settlers increased, so did their hunger for land and their government’s need for unfettered colonial sovereignty.
In response, the Kīngitanga (king movement) was established in an attempt to unify Māori and assert a moral equivalence with Queen Victoria’s colonial government. The people of Ihumātao adhered to the king and in 1863 refused the governor’s demand that they swear allegiance to the queen, fleeing before the imperial army, and fighting for the Kīngitanga in the prolonged Waikato Wars.
Their land was confiscated and sold to a Pākehā settler family in 1865. In time, some of the relatively impoverished villagers returned to the area. The airport was built and later extended, and also a sewage treatment plant. The nearby sacred volcano of Ōtuataua was quarried. In 1999 the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve was established, including only the most inescapably obvious of the prehistoric stoneworks.
In 2016 the land was acquired by Fletchers, one of the largest and best-connected conglomerates in the country. Hugh Fletcher, a former chief executive, is married to the recently retired Chief Justice of New Zealand. His former sister-in-law Christine Fletcher is a three-term National Party MP, cabinet minister and former mayor of Auckland. Fletchers are at the core of the bourgeoisie.
Fletchers’ primary aim is to make money by injecting 480 houses into the current national housing shortage, but the project, on a site abutting the Ōtuataua Reserve and isolated from the transport, shops, schools and other support structures necessary for the additional population proposed, will do nothing to alleviate the urgent need for working-class accommodation or the crisis of homelessness.
Fletchers negotiated with a group of traditional leaders from the Ihumātao community, and came to a compromise agreement which gave some land back to the local iwi (tribe) as a buffer between the development and the existing reserve, reduced the height of some of the buildings to preserve views of the volcano and placed some houses in shared ownership. It is this compromise that the elites, Māori and Pākehā, now seek to push through. They are playing a sophisticated game and fanning ambitions of bourgeoisification in some layers of the local Māori community, while disenfranchising other layers from consultation and the legal consent process, sowing poisonous generational division and inspiring accusations that some spokespeople are not legitimate.
Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL), led by Pania Newton, a young lawyer from Ihumātao, was formed in 2016 and started to build opposition to the plan using petitions and other legal and political means, while also establishing a physical presence at the site of the proposed development as “kaitiaki” (guardians) of the land. As the beginning of construction approached in July 2019, the dispute reached a crisis. The police arrived and there were evictions and arrests. Soon thousands of activists arrived from around the country and settled in for a long stay. Further escalation was avoided on 26 July, when the prime minister put a stay on construction, but there have been continued attempts to trick and pressure the protesters into withdrawing.
The police sought to ingratiate themselves and were distressingly successful. They were welcomed to join in the community waiata (singing) in the evenings. Pania Newton urged fellow protesters “not to become complacent with police presence.… [they] were still representing the Crown and intended to support the Fletcher Building housing development.”
She’s right. Police joining in the waiata will not stop them acting as the iron fist of the state when called to do so. They are not the friends of Ihumātao but the agents of the government and Fletchers. The kaitiaki and the working class must defend themselves from all police intimidation.
The city of Auckland sprawls ever-outwards, encompassing many areas of unplanned wasteland, run-down race tracks, straggling malls, under-used golf-courses, car sales yards and sub-standard accommodation for the working class. A rational society would develop an overall plan to solve the housing shortage in and around Auckland, identifying suitable land and initiating a massive social housing project, including the necessary infrastructure such as schools, transport, shops and meeting points. The capitalists who own the land have not attempted this, nor has the city council or the government. Capitalism isn’t rational. Capitalism doesn’t plan.
The divisions among Māori in Ihumātao are a microcosm of divisions nationally, with disaffected, poorer, disenfranchised and sometimes younger Māori on one side, and traditional leaders and a more privileged caste on the other.
The Kīngitanga leadership continues today as the representation of the Māori elite, who seek to enrich themselves from settlements arising from the Treaty of Waitangi. The process of “honouring” the 1840 Treaty over the past few decades has seen substantial resources passed to a growing Māori bourgeoisie linked to the leaders of the iwi, while poor and urban Māori with weaker connection to the iwi benefit very little. Initially the Kīngitanga supported the deal with Fletchers and ignored the kaitiaki at Ihumātao, but this changed on Saturday 3 August, when Kīngi Tūheitia turned up at the camp with his entourage of hundreds. The king’s spokesperson, Pahui Papa, told the protesters that “It is about the Kīngitanga in all of its entirety coming together with the people who whakapapa [trace their lineage] to the whenua [land] to find a resolution.” The unexpected strength and popularity of the protests had reached a point where the Māori elite felt it had to step in to establish control and take the credit for any viable deal, and many of the protesters are well aware of this.
The role of the 19th century ancestors of the Māori king was to preserve the mana – the prestige, honour and influence – of the traditional elite by protecting their lands from incorporation into the juggernaut of capitalist development. But the culture of mana works differently now. The traditional elite is thoroughly incorporated into capitalism, in some cases at a very high level. Today the role of the Māori king is to preserve the remaining mana of the iwi leaders by helping them facilitate the capitalist development of lands in which they have interests.
The Labour Party has always sought to monopolise Māori representation in Parliament and seeks to straddle the increasing class divisions among Māori. But for a period from 2011, the disaffected were represented by the Mana Party, until they were misled into oblivion by their leader, Hone Harawira, in the 2014 election (see “Kim Dotcom’s ‘Mana’ from heaven”), while the elite were represented by the Māori Party, openly allied with National in the last government. Kīngi Tūheitia explicitly endorsed the Māori Party in the 2017 general election, but they were defeated by Labour in every Māori electorate (see “Labour’s Bid to Run New Zealand Capitalism”).
Despite appeals from the protesters, Labour prime minister Jacinda Ardern has so far not visited the site. In August 2015, while in opposition, Labour issued a press release, declaring “the stand-off at Ihumātao is more evidence the Government hasn’t properly thought through this process and is certainly not taking the community with them”. This changed once Labour was in government. They hope for a negotiated settlement, but are clearly signalling that they are prepared to turn their back on the activists in favour of the traditional leaders.
Why? They certainly see how this can become a festering sore that destroys the relationship the Labour Party needs with Māori. Labour, which used to have the reliable support of most Māori, now want them all back – two different and often opposed Māori constituencies, the privileged caste and the disenfranchised.
Housing is a sensitive issue for Labour, who came to office with large badly planned promises that they were ultimately unable to deliver on. The obvious solution in Ihumātao might seem to be for the government to buy its way out of the situation – it would not be such a big budget item. But handled clumsily, that approach would tend to undermine “traditional authority”. The mana of the elite who had negotiated with Fletchers would seem diminished in favour of the more militant, under-privileged Māori. This is why representatives of the elite, from Labour MP Willie Jackson to the Māori King, sensitive to their declining mana, would prefer that the government find a way to administer a defeat to the activists.
This leaves Labour in a quandary. The demands of the activists are modest and reasonable. As Pania Newton says, all they are asking “is that this small piece of land is returned … so that we can hold it in trust for all New Zealanders to enjoy as a cultural heritage landscape.”
The numbers on the side of the activists are likely to remain strong. There is a history of such struggles enduring when they have been brought to this peak, and winning. Deeply embedded in the collective memory are 507 days of bitter struggle in the late 1970s at Bastion Point, where the land was eventually returned to the local people.
The activists will be smashed, or they will win. And Labour knows that if they are smashed, it has little chance of a second term in government.
The political logic is for the government to accept the activists winning but arrange to have the Kīngitanga get great mana from the settlement. The Kīngitanga are showing signs of softening their stance toward the activists, and Labour would likely wish to try to buy political support in the Kīngitanga by giving it authority over an expanded stonefields reserve, in the way the leaders of the Ngāi Tahu people in the South Island have won special authority over Aorangi (Mount Cook), and the leaders of the Tūhoe people in the north-central North Island have won special authority over Te Urewera. But for Labour to get optimal benefit from this, there is a lot of talking to do, a lot of ducks to line up.
A historical-materialist understanding of the world today requires a deep understanding of the past. Marxists stand with those who seek to preserve sites of historical and scientific significance from destruction by capitalism for the enrichment of a wealthy few.
In a completely different realm, our comrades in Otago opposed the mining of Foulden Maar, near Middlemarch, formed in a volcanic eruption 23 million years ago. The resulting crater lake is filled with a well-preserved cache of fossilised life forms, providing a wealth of detailed data on the prehistoric biosphere and climate. The only known maar of its kind in the world, it had been slated to be mined to produce additive for fertiliser and stock feed, but the political furore drove the transnational development company into liquidation in July this year, and there is somewhat of a reprieve.
Just as the understanding of our physical world requires the best understanding of natural history, so the understanding of our social life today requires the best possible understanding of our social history, and important traces lie there at Ihumātao. Both Foulden Maar and Ihumātao must be removed from private ownership.
Capitalism, the system of ownership of land and other productive resources for profit-making, tends to cut us off from the past. It leads to decisions which destroy knowledge of our natural history and our social history, and therefore knowledge of ourselves and of our world. It leads to decisions which impoverish the vast mass of humanity in the present. And it leads to short-term, self-centred criteria of decision-making which doom us to a world with no future.
Housing is only one of the areas where working-class Māori suffer disproportionately. Land and fisheries being handed over to the tribal elites under the provisions of the Treaty have done nothing to alleviate inequalities in health, wages, education and other consequences of poverty. Māori and Pākehā workers need to fight together, especially in trade unions, for jobs, increased and equal wages, access to free quality health care, increased funding for education and liveable benefits. This fight needs to be carried out with sensitivity to Māori connections to the land and Māori culture and language. Jacinda Ardern performs a superficial respect for Māori culture, but Labour’s programme and concrete actions tell a different story.
Militant working-class Māori are a key component of the future revolutionary party that will smash capitalism and bring all New Zealand’s resources into public ownership, utilised for the benefit of all who inhabit this land.