Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Should Wiser Heads Have Prevailed

You can't help but think that much of the current crisis facing the New Zealand Labour government is the result of the terrible mishandling of the Seabeds and Foreshore issue. Remember that? Back in June, the Court of Appeal ruled on the case brought forward by South Island iwi on the status of the seabeds and foreshores in the Marlborough Sound.

The Appeal Court found that the Maori Land Court had the jurisdiction to decide on the status of seabeds and foreshores in accordance with the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act of 1993. That is, the Court said that the Maori Land Court had the capacity to decide whether Maori claims to customary property rights along the seabeds and foreshores of the Marlborough Sounds were valid or not.

Reversing previous decisions, Justice Elias argued that the so-called transfer of sovereignty widely assumed to be the substance of the Treaty of Waitangi did not erase Maori rights to customary property in seabeds and foreshores:

The transfer of sovereignty did not affect customary property. They [customary property rights] are interests preserved by the common law until extinguished in accordance with the law. I agree that the legislation relied on in the High Court does not extinguish any Maori customary property in the seabed or the foreshore.

The Court also found that the entire question of who actually owns the seabeds and foreshores was up for debate.

Unfortunately, the Court's decision touched off a spiral of anxiety. Led by the New Zealand Herald New Zealanders were told to expect the worst: this country's sacred beaches could fall into the exclusive hands of Maori. In the face of widespread panic, Helen Clark decided to legislate away the rights of Maori to have their legal claims investigated by the Maori Land Court. How? By putting the seabeds and foreshores into what government called the 'public domain' and unilaterally limiting the definition of customary property rights. Somewhere at the Cabinet table, it must have seemed like a good idea.

The move caused a storm of controversy for the Labour ship. Maori were angry that their rights to due process were being taken away. National and the political right criticised the nebulousness of the concept of 'public domain.' The debate snowballed into arguments about Maori 'privilege' and opened up the psychological space for Don Brash's Orewa speech. Looking back, it appears as though Labour were stuck on the foreshore between a rock and a hard place.

But was it?

There was another option. The Clark government could have let South Island iwi take their case to the Maori Land Court. The Court of Appeal decision specified that Maori claims to customary property rights in the seabeds and foreshores would have to be based on rigorous standards of evidence. Justice Elias cautioned that the process would be difficult. Read: time consuming.

Hey! Did someone mention time? Now, there's a valuable political commodity!

Instead of pissing off Maori and exposing itself to right-wing and anti-Maori political fire, Labour could have simply allowed the South Island iwi to have their day in court. That day would have been many, many months into the future. Government could have deflected questions by saying that the matter was being decided by the courts, while at the same time it could have used the breathing space to negotiate with Maori groups in good faith. Clark could have used the time and goodwill from these negotiations to come up with legislation that would have vested ownership of seabeds and foreshores with the crown excepting those areas that could be proven in court to be subject to customary property rights.

And contrary to the alarmist hysteria perpetrated by the Herald, it's pretty clear that those areas would not have been overly large. Where Maori claims overlapped with subsequent freehold property owners or with popular beaches, Labour could have undertaken to negotiate and compensate in a process so complex it would have bored everyone to tears.

And maybe, just maybe, Don Brash's Orewa speech would have fallen on uninterested, mid-summer ears.

And if you think that this is all hindsight 20/20 stuff, read this.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

I Give Up

As a committed advocate of public transport, it pains me to say that as a result of the Auckland Regional Council’s (ARC) poor planning and service delivery, I have given up on using public transport in Auckland. I have bought an inexpensive car that’s cheap to operate and will get me to where I need to be quickly and reliably. That’s more than I can say for the service operated by the Stagecoach company and the Auckland Regional Council.

My travel needs aren’t all that grandiose. Thankfully, I live near the downtown area, so I generally walk to work. But two to three times a week, I have to get to Massey University’s Albany campus on the North Shore to attend evening classes. It's really not that far. By the highway it takes about twenty to twenty-five minutes from my house. By bus? Sometimes as long as two and-a-half hours.

Although the ARC claims to be concerned about the growth of education related travel, estimated to make up 40% of all travel in the Auckland region, the organisation has shown little initiative in providing efficient and reliable service to the region’s educational institutions. Is it any wonder that so many of these institutions are relocating to Auckland’s central business district (CBD)?

Albany campus has between 5000 and 6000 students enrolled in its programmes, not including staff and faculty. Current estimates are that enrollment will grow by 500 new students per annum. Additionally, the Albany area is experiencing significant residential and commercial growth. So you’d think that the ARC would provide a decent bus service to the campus. Well think again.

The 895 – 9 bus services originate from Albert Street near the expensive and nearly useless Britomart station. The downtown stop is, of course, badly signed and lacks even the rudest bench or any other amenity. There has been no attempt to provide any clear information for the many english-as-a-second language students who attend classes at Albany campus, let alone those who understand english perfectly well, but find the ARC’s needlessly complex routes and the information about them to be just so much hieroglyphics.

Let’s look at these routes, using the the 899 as an example. That is, the 899 is one of the buses that gets you near Massey. Very confusingly, the only return bus is the 847. Anyway, back to the looking at routes. Operating roughly every hour, the 899 features some of Stagecoach’s rudest and most reckless drivers. I like to think that they got this way trying to get the bus through the ARC’s utterly incompetent route plan and schedule. Even though there are already dozens of buses that serve Takapuna, North Harbour and the Wairau valley, the 899 wanders through these suburbs and others, getting stuck in traffic or careening at dangerous speeds through suburban streets in an attempt to be on time. And it never is. What should be a twenty minute or half-hour ride is scheduled by the ARC to take fifty minutes. I have never been on a bus that has arrived on time. Coming back, the ride is usually 15 – 20 minutes late.

Now all this I might be prepared to live with. But the final straw for me came when I finished an evening class at 9:00 p.m. and walked to the bus stop on the Albany Highway. During the week (when several hundred students attend evening classes) there are no buses returning to Auckland between 8:18 p.m. and 10:23 p.m. It makes me wonder if the ARC even bothered to check with Albany campus to find out when evening classes finished before they scheduled the route.

I’m told that everything will be better when the North Shore Busway is built. The date for this project has been rolled back to 2008. I was told that there was a plan to begin interim services in 2005, though it now appears as though that date has been rolled back as well. I was told consultation for proposed north shore routes would begin in February 2004. I haven’t seen or heard of any such consultation yet. Could this have been rolled back as well? And will there be any effort made to involve the students at Albany campus in this exercise?

It doesn’t matter to me now. I have got a car and I’m willing to use it. I tried and tried to use Auckland’s public transport system, but the system doesn’t work. We keep hoping that politicians will fix the problems, but we don’t do a very good job of making politicians listen to us. As Aucklanders, we’re all pretty good at complaining, but we’re not very good at coming together as users and as citizens to make sure that we have a public transport system that works.