The profound political implications of Ihumātao

The most important shift in New Zealand politics in almost three decades was registered last month, when a long-simmering Māori land occupation at Ihumātao erupted into a mass struggle.

Placard on the road to Ihumātao occupation. Raupatu was the confiscation as part of the wars of dispossession of Māori in the 19th century. Photo: James Robb

In December 2016, Fletcher Building, the largest construction company in the country, had announced that it intended building a housing development of 480 houses on 32 hectares of land that it had purchased at Ihumātao, near Auckland Airport. The land was one of many areas of Māori-owned land confiscated by the government in the 1860s as punishment for ‘rebellion against the crown,’ and had been in the hands of the Wallace family which acquired it that way until quite recently.

The housing development had been agreed to by the local Māori iwi (tribal) authority Te Kawerau ā Maki, and had obtained the necessary consents from the state.  Part of the deal included signing over about a quarter of the land in question to the iwi, and a provision for 40 of the 480 houses in the development to be made available for iwi members.

Aerial view of Ihumātao Peninsula, including boundaries of the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve, the Special Housing Area 62 (“Wallace Block”), and the approximate boundaries of the 8Ha to be returned to mana whenua as part of the Fletchers Housing development. 2017 Aerial imagery and property title boundaries from Land Information New Zealand, CC-BY. Graphic: By RadishSlice – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The development was challenged by a local Māori group called SOUL – Save Our Unique Landscape – based in the nearby papakainga (village), which argued that the area of land had immense historical and archaeological value, as one of the first known places of settlement by the Tainui waka (canoe) arriving from Polynesia over 800 years ago, and the site of unique cultivation methods on the rich volcanic soils in the period since then. SOUL protested the development in the Environment Court, and began an occupation of the land. It presented a 16,000-signature petition to parliament, and a 20,000-signature petition to the Auckland City Council, calling on either the government or the Council to buy the land from Fletchers and add it to the existing Stonefields Reserve.  SOUL also took their case to the United Nations forum on indigenous issues. The courts ruled in favour of Fletchers. (An excellent article giving a fuller account of the history of the land and of the recent occupation can be found here.)

With the courts ruling in their favour, Fletchers waited a few months more for the protests to die away, hoping and expecting that SOUL would accept the situation and pack up their tents. In July, Fletchers decided to proceed with the preparatory earthworks on the site, and called on police to evict the remaining occupiers in order to begin.

Ihumātao occupation 25 July 2019. Photo: James Robb

What happened next surprised everyone – except perhaps the tenacious and far-sighted leaders of SOUL. A massive outpouring of opposition to the evictions sprang up. Hundreds converged on the site to join the occupiers in confronting the police, and to prevent the eviction. The call went out for the government to halt the development. At first, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that the government would not intervene, saying that “if we come in over the top it really would be undermining the local iwi in this case.” But as the numbers joining the occupation grew to thousands, Ardern announced, on the eve of an overseas trip, that construction would cease until a solution could be found.

Part of the occupiers’ tent city. Manukau Harbour in distance, existing papakainga at top right

This announcement eased the tensions at the site for a time – the dozens of police which had surrounded the occupation moved back a little and put on their friendly faces. It did not prevent the continuing mobilisations in support of the protest. Over the weekend of July 27-28, between ten and twenty thousand people joined the occupation for all or part of the time, with busloads arriving from the far North and Wellington, and individuals from even further afield. Demonstrations in solidarity were held in Wellington and Dunedin. In the middle of an Auckland winter, hundreds remain camped out in tents at the site. Many families have taken their children out of school to join the encampment, saying that what the children will learn from an experience like this is far more important than what they learn in school. They are not mistaken.

On 3 August, the Maori Kīngi Tuheitia visited to occupation to open a dialogue with the occupiers and try to find a solution. The Kīngitanga had previously voiced its support for the development. Barring some major provocation by police or act of indiscipline by occupiers, the occupation seems unlikely to end any time soon. (Just such a police provocation did take place on the night of August 5, including an assault on Pania Newton, the central leader of SOUL, but the occupation stood firm.)

Informal marae at occupation. Photo: James Robb

As long-time Māori leader Moana Jackson said, “Sometimes the history of an injustice becomes crystallised in a particular moment, in a particular piece of whenua [land] and people may not necessarily know all the history, they may have a jaundiced or misunderstood view of the history, but they recognise an injustice.” Ihumātao has become New Zealand’s Standing Rock, its Mauna Kea, its Wallmapu. Across the Americas and Pacific region, the prominence of struggles of indigenous peoples for their land rights is a striking feature of this early stage of the resistance to the capitalist crisis. Ihumātao is deeply linked to these struggles – the flag of the Mapuche people of Chile and Argentina was flying alongside the Maori sovereignty flag and the Tongan and Samoan flags at Ihumātao. [Perhaps least well-known of all these struggles, a short video about the Mapuche struggle can be found here, and a solidarity website with various articles about the Mapuche struggle here.]

Flag of the Mapuche, indigenous people of Chile, flies at Ihumātao 27 July 2019. Photo: James Robb

The huge scale of the protests drew comparisons with previous Māori land occupations, particularly the watershed battle of 1977-78 when Ngāti Whātua occupied Bastion Point in the heart of Auckland for 507 days. Indeed there are many similarities with Bastion Point, in the inducements used to win acceptance of the proposed development such as housing for iwi members, in the method of winning a section of the iwi to support the proposals and then speaking exclusively to them, and above all, in the use of the police to evict the occupiers.

Ngāti Whātua occupation of Bastion Point (Photo by Robin Morrison, courtesy of the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira)

But there is a significant difference as well, which goes right to the heart of the government’s dilemma over what to do: unlike Bastion Point, this occupation comes at the end of a process of compensation for violations of the Treaty of Waitangi – especially the historic injustices of the land confiscations of the 19th century – centred on the decisions of the Waitangi Tribunal in the past 30 years. The land in question at Ihumātao has already been the subject of a claim before the Waitangi Tribunal, and compensation has been paid for it as part of a larger package.

“Every Treaty settlement ever done could be undermined if the Government buys the land at Ihumātao,” warned Labour MP Peeni Henare. “If the Government steps in to buy this land back, we undermine every Treaty settlement that’s been done to date. We then allow relitigation of settlements that have been done in the past and are we prepared for that?

“I’ll leave that question there,” he said, evidently afraid to follow through the implications of his own statement. Yet there is truth in his assertion, and it is by exploring the implications of this that we can get a measure of just how significant the recent events are.

Māori Land March 1975

The Waitangi Tribunal was set up as an advisory body in 1975, the same year as the historic Māori Land March which demanded “Not one more acre!” of Māori land to be lost. Originally it was only to investigate breaches of the Treaty occurring after 1975. But as the land occupations and other protests continued to broaden in the late 1970s, the Tribunal’s mandate was extended back to 1840, the year the Treaty was signed, and its rulings and recommendations for compensation almost invariably passed into legislation (with a few notable exceptions, such as the Foreshore and Seabed Act.)

This has brought real and important benefits to Māori. Among the most important have been greater public knowledge of the true record of injustice, land theft, deceit, illegal and unjustified punishments that took place in through the wars of dispossession and the decades that followed. As part of the process of various iwi preparing their claims before the Waitangi Tribunal, Māori historians have carefully researched the historic records, and brought these actions, hitherto largely buried by colonial history, out into the light of day and placed them on the legal record. Responsibility has been accepted by the government and compensation paid for these crimes. In some cases, Māori place names have been restored. While the level of compensation falls far below the value of the land unjustly taken, the process as a whole has enabled some iwi to set up substantial businesses. It has also required the government to take into account the rights guaranteed to Māori under the Treaty of Waitangi in all decisions related to state assets in land, water, forestry and fishing resources, broadcasting, and more.

Hundreds took part in discussions on the informal marae at Ihumātao, 27 July 2019. Speaking here (in brown coat) is Willie Jackson, Associate Minister for Māori Development. Photo: James Robb

From the start, the unstated goal of successive governments in supporting this process was to demobilise the Māori political movement, to take the fight for Māori land and language rights off the streets and into the courts of law, parliamentary chambers, and corporate boardrooms. Alongside the broadening of the scope of the Waitangi Tribunal there was a drive to draw more Māori into higher education, and create, for the first time ever, a substantial layer of Māori professionals – lawyers, midwives, academics, parliamentarians, journalists, social workers – and state functionaries at all levels, from cabinet minister to cop. Partly through the compensation settlements paid, a small layer of Māori capitalists also emerged.

From the point of view of the ruling class, the goal was for these layers to serve as a political buffer and transmission belt of bourgeois politics into the Māori nationality, helping to keep the Māori political movement safely contained within the institutions of bourgeois politics. For thirty years they have successfully achieved this goal (the most important exception being the 79-day occupation of Pākaitore /Moutoa Gardens in Whanganui in 1995, near the beginning of this process).  Were it not for that outcome, the ruling class would have no interest in supporting the Waitangi Tribunal process.

Yet for all the real gains won by Māori through the Waitangi Tribunal process, for all the integration of Māori into the organs of the state, capitalist society remains incapable of resolving the national oppression of Māori, which is deeply ingrained in its every institution. Nothing demonstrated that fact more clearly than the revelations a month earlier about the practice by the state agency Oranga Tamariki (Child Welfare) of tearing newborn babies from their mothers’ arms – euphemistically called ‘uplifting’ – and taking them into state care. The institution now has a Māori name, and employs many Māori social workers, yet the execution of the ‘uplifts’ remains as biased as ever: of the 283 babies uplifted last year, about 70% were either Māori or Pasifika. Māori make up about 15% of the population, people of Pacific Island descent about 8%. The number of Māori children in state care has doubled since 1989. (For an earlier post about this issue, click here.)

A documentary video showing an example of the brutal ‘uplifting’ practice has been viewed by half a million people. (That half-million does not include the Prime Minister, nor the Minster of Children Tracey Martin). A hui (gathering) convened to discuss the issue of taking Māori babies into state care drew four times the number of participants than was expected. The hui enthusiastically greeted Jean Te Huia, one of the midwives featured in the video, who called on participants to “open the doors, open the floodgates… we have a right to do it. We have a right as tangata whenua [people of the land – indigenous people] to stand up for our babies.”

Eighty-year-old professor of Māori Studies Mason Durie summed up the gains of the past thirty years, and the limits of those gains, in this way: “We’ve got Kōhanga Reo [Māori language pre-schools], kura kaupapa Māori [Māori language immersion schools], whare kura, we’ve got kaupapa Māori health and social services. We’ve got Whānau Ora [Māori-focused health amenities], we have a whole range of very well-qualified people. The only thing is… all of those people are accountable to an agency of the state.”

At the same moment the protest at Ihumātao was erupting into mass struggle, demonstrations of hundreds outside Parliament were demanding “Hands off our Tamariki (children).” Similar marches and protests were held in Christchurch, Tauranga and other centres.


Protesters walk from the Bridge of Remembrance to the justice precinct, Christchurch. Photo: Joseph Johnson, Stuff

As expressions of shattered confidence in the outcome of the past thirty years, both Ihumātao and the Hands off Our Tamariki protests signal the end of the road for the Waitangi Tribunal process in its broadest sense. The struggle for Māori sovereignty returns to the streets.

For their part, the renewal of street protests means that the ruling class is less inclined to feel bound by the constraints of the Waitangi Tribunal process, and can be expected increasingly to resort to police methods, and possibly extra-legal violence, in order to crush the nascent movement. Given the centrality of the Māori question in New Zealand politics, this applies more generally. We are in for a period of sharper and more open class conflict, and it won’t be long before this shift is felt more widely.

In real politics, the politics of mass movements in the streets, success or failure depends on organisation and leadership.

Asians Stand With Ihumatao pic

The struggle at Ihumātao has won wide solidarity. Behind Asian group, flags of Samoa and Niue fly alongside Māori sovereignty flags. Photo: Auckland Peace Action

The organisations of the broader working class, the trade unions, are, with very few exceptions, in a state of weakness and disarray, permeated by class-collaborationist thinking and practices. The unions have never recovered from the events of thirty years ago, when, rotted from within by decades of dependence on the capitalist state, they crumbled at the first serious blow. The spirit of solidarity and the willingness to fight have not died, however. The new situation will provide new openings to rebuild these basic organisations of working people.

Māori organisation is in better shape – as the rapid mobilisation in face of the eviction threat showed beyond all doubt. The last thirty years have widened the class differentiation among Māori. This is to be welcomed, because it brings the question of class, and the class character of leadership, to the fore. Capitalist leadership can be recognised not only in the snide hostility of Minister of Regional Economic Development Shane Jones, who dismisses the Ihumātao occupiers as ‘freedom campers,’ but in the paralysis and pessimism of those who orient towards the capitalist class and its institutions for solutions.

One of the strengths of the movement that grew up in support of the Bastion Point occupation in the 1970s was its orientation towards the working class, both Māori and pākehā, and a leadership which was based in the unions. The two main leaders of the Wellington Bastion Point support group were Māori freezing workers at Gear Meat works. On the day of the eviction, the workers at Gear Meat stopped work and marched in the streets in protest. This kind of working-class leadership is something that has to be re-conquered – and that can only happen in connection with re-building the unions.

Never before have the interests of Māori and the working class as a whole been so closely intertwined.

2 responses to “The profound political implications of Ihumātao

  1. Pingback: IHUMAATAO, DUSK 15/8/2019 – DIGGING AT THEM BONES·

  2. Pingback: Reflections on the George Floyd march in Auckland | A communist at large·

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