On 9 February, members of the Port Nicholson Settlement Trust will vote on whether to sell our land at Shelly Bay, Wellington. It’s a sad moment but also an honest one. The trust is almost broke only nine years after it was set up. It has flopped as a corporate entity.
Even worse, it has failed as a cultural and social one.
The trust’s guiding statement translates as: To restore, revitalize, strengthen and enhance the cultural, social and economic well being of Taranaki Whanaui ki Te Upoko o Te Ika. This promise used to be printed on agendas.
You only have to attend a trust hui to see how empty those words are. I am one of about 14,000 registered members. All of us are descended from Taranaki people who were living in Te Whanganui a Tara in 1839 when the first New Zealand Company ship sailed in.
But at trust hui 100 people would be considered a bumper crowd. I went to one in August 2015 at Pipitea and there were only 20 of us – including the trust members who were up for re-election. The men stood up and delivered their pitches to an enormous, cold room full of skeptical ghosts.
The trust has not communicated well with its members about anything, including the sale of Shelly Bay. The trust has not listened to us. We have barely existed. We are just names on a register, strangers on the street, or votes on a bus that has been brought down from Taranaki.
I am fortunate to be a relatively well-informed member of the trust. I have worked very hard to gain the knowledge I do have and many of my relatives have supported me along the way. Yet I always leave trust events feeling bamboozled and cross.
Men in suits have paraded incomprehensible spreadsheets before us year after year. This is not a figure of speech. Gender inequity on a fairly breathtaking scale is the norm in Treaty negotiating teams and post-settlement governance entities.
Port Nicholson Settlement Block Trust’s new commercial arm is called Taranaki Whānui Limited. It comprises four men who work under a male CEO. Such an arrangement might be common but that does not make it right.
I don’t only blame my relatives for this secrecy. Secrecy and a closed-door mentality is at the heart of every Treaty settlement. It is embedded in the process that has been created and refined by successive governments who want the to end all Treaty claims and settle all grievances.
Waitangi Tribunal claims and hearings are open. The reports are public. The archive created by the tribunal’s work and the work of treaty sector bodies such as the CrownForestry Rental Trust is a gift to the nation, now and in perpetuity.
The tribunal process is not perfect and tribunal reports are not perfect either but at least they are open to scrutiny. At least researchers can go to the archive to reconstruct the relationships and the research that informed them.
Tribunal hearings have nothing to do with the Treaty settlement process. A very knowledgeable person said this to me once. I was furious at first, then hurt. How could this be true? Surely one thing led to the next.
But the statement is true. I have sat through a contemporary claim hearing where it become evident that an Office of Treaty Settlements negotiator had not even read the tribunal report relating to the claim he was negotiating. The negotiator did not even have an undergraduate degree in history or Māori.
Details of many settlements packages, including the Port Nicholson one, are nutted out in intimate little man-to-man chats between a chief negotiator and a minister. Where is the accountability in that? There is none.
I only make these observations about the Treaty settlements process to demonstrate that the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust’s current problems must not be dismissed as “tribal infighting” or some other insulting, kind of racist phrase.
Actually, our problem has been too much fighting it has been too little. You have to care to fight. You have to feel like it’s worth your effort. Aside from a few members of a couple of key but competing whānau, no one else has really been bothered to even talk about the trust, let alone fight about it.
There has been so little honest communication that atrophy or absence or apathy have been the norm. Well not anymore!
We members have awoken. There’s a fight on every corner. I have even heard reports of firey, packed hui up in Taranaki. Not one more acre! All land is Māori land!
One relative sent me a card, about another matter but he had scrawled a note about Shelly Bay on the back. A cousin in Sydney called me as I was walking to my train in Brunswick, Melbourne and we gasbagged about the land and the trust for an hour.
Texts, emails, phone calls…it has been an outstanding few weeks of korero. And we are actually talking about things that are really important. And we are sharing information. And we are cracking jokes. And all this disagreement is really, really exciting!
Not one more acre! But this land has no significance to us. But all land is papakāinga. But we are broke. Shelly Bay is a dud. The state of it! The wharf is falling down. Have you ever even been there? I’ve never even had a coffee at the Chocolate Fish. I went there once. What about the Peter Jackson stuff? Hey, remember when they said it was going to be a top wedding venue? Ha, ha, ha. I’m crying right now.
At last we are being asked what we think. The Trust is so desperate they have no other choice. Seventy five per cent of us have to vote yes for the proposed sale to the “Wellington Company” (anyone else notice similarities with “The New Zealand Company”) can go ahead. I have had emails and a paper letter from CEO Jason Fox. The one that arrived yesterday ended with an unthinkably humble and generous statement: “In the end, you have the mana to make the decision for the Trust.”
Yes we do whānau.
Today, there was another panui from the CEO. This announcement is headlined: Proposed Sale of Shelly Bay The Facts. I was then offered “15 simple facts” about the proposal. After years of being fed fiction we are now been bombarded with these “simple facts”. The letter also states: “This is not a complicated matter.”
Come on! Yes it is. That is why it is great to talk and question. For the first time, our views really matter.
Let’s make the most of this moment. I will vote for the sale of Shelly Bay but I insist that the trust or the new corporate entity stop negotiating to buy the railway station immediately. I want you to use the money from the sale for at least one of the buy and leaseback arrangements that were part of our settlement package.
As a historian, I consider the National Archives to be a superior choice but I wouldn’t mind being the landlord of the High Court either!
Note: if you are interested in reading some of my work on Taranaki history in Taranaki and Wellington, you can find some of it online for free. This essay questions the statue of Gandhi at Wellington Railway Station while this other one talks about my grandma and the Taranaki war history hidden behind the National War Memorial. You can read about Treaty settlements and trees here. A story about one piece of Māori freehold land is here. I’ve written a book too on Parihaka. It’s in the library.