After 18 months, the Government's much-debated foreshore and seabed legislation was yesterday passed by Parliament, with the Government saying that all it did was preserve the status quo.
The Greens and Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia labelled the Foreshore and Seabed Bill racist legislation, like that seen in the late 1800s which confiscated land, stopped Maori men from voting and prevented Maori women from breast-feeding their babies.
Others called it fatally flawed, unnecessary and racially divisive.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen said the issue had "challenged our sense of nationhood and our ability to encompass all the interests in our country".
The legislation confirmed Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed, and safeguarded traditional rights of public access, he said.
The Bill put the foreshore and seabed in Crown ownership on behalf of all New Zealanders "in perpetuity" and guaranteed their access to it. It recognises customary rights under strict criteria, including that they must have existed in 1840 and continued substantially uninterrupted to the present day.
Where a group can demonstrate that, but for the legislation, they would have held a territorial customary right equivalent to exclusive use and occupation, they will be able to seek from the High Court the establishment of a reserve.
There will be management rights for a reserve, but it must be held for common use. Or the group can negotiate other forms of redress with the Government.
The Bill followed a Court of Appeal ruling that the Maori Land Court had the right to investigate customary title to the foreshore and seabed.
Dr Cullen said yesterday many Maori would still be disappointed by the passage of the Bill, but the Court of Appeal had not said Maori owned the foreshore and seabed.
National Party leader Don Brash said his party would have supported the Government if it had immediately acted after the court's ruling and legislated quickly to re-establish the position in law that all New Zealanders owned the foreshore and seabed.
"Had the Government done that, all the drama, all the anguish, all the hikoi and demonstrations, all the anger would have been avoided because the Government would have moved quickly to re-establish the position which we all thought was in fact the case," Dr Brash said.
Instead, the Government had reserved the right to hand over ownership of parts of the foreshore and seabed for treaty settlements, he said.
"The passage of this Bill will mark the beginning of a process whereby control of large tracts of the New Zealand foreshore, the birthright of all New Zealanders, will be handed over to small groups of unelected, undemocratic tribal elites." New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, whose 13 MPs voted for the legislation, spent much of his contribution to yesterday's debate lambasting National.
He said National had wiped its hands of the mess it created but had not accepted any responsibility.
Dr Brash, who did not say yesterday he would repeal the Bill, had promised to fight the legislation with every fibre of his being but, instead of a volcano, there had been a "little geyser", Mr Peters said.
United Future leader Peter Dunne said National should have worked with the Government to present a unified position for the good of the country.
Act MP Ken Shirley said his party supported the sanctity of property rights and due process of law.
There had been a lot of rhetoric spoken about the Bill and some Maori had believed they had "full exclusive undisturbed possession to the heavens and beyond and back to Hawaiki".
The Maori Labour MPs have come under a lot of pressure over the Bill. Labour's Tainui MP, Nanaia Mahuta, initially opposed it but yesterday supported its third reading.
Mrs Turia, a former minister, quit Labour over the issue and forced a by-election in her Te Tai Hauauru electorate.
Green MP Metiria Turei, her voice shaking with emotion, said the legislation was racist.
"This is confiscation, pure and simple," she said, likening it to laws passed in the late 1880s that confiscated 1.2 million hectares of Maori land, dispensed with trials for Maori prisoners and made it illegal for Maori women to breast-feed their babies.
The Bill was passed, 66-53, after Labour, the Progressive Party's two MPs and NZ First voted for it.