Beaches, churches and articles of faith

On a mild and largely sunny Easter weekend, articles of faith have been reaffirmed across the country as holidaymakers mixed the traditional pastimes - beaches, fishing, swimming and so on - with religious observance.

And those same articles have been very much under other spotlights.

Before the weekend, the National Party released its proposals on the replacement of the Seabed and Foreshore Act.

Among four identified options, it clearly stated a preference for the first of these: that no-one shall own the foreshore and seabed, and that instead it will fall under the description of "public domain".

And when the majority party so publicly states such a preference, it is tantamount to saying "that is our position, and while we have put up others for debate and discussion, we'll be sticking to it".

For the moment, the Maori Party has been cautiously welcoming of the paper as a necessary prerequisite to the repeal of the reviled Act - this much is an article of faith.

Whether, as the jubilation settles and the reality of the "preferred option" for replacement sinks in, there will be dancing on the marae, is another matter entirely.

Near-sighted history - the formation of the Maori Party, its siding with National in the 2008 general election - suggests that Labour made a disastrous mistake in enacting the Act.

A longer view may be marginally more forgiving or at least make it contextually more explicable.

In the first instance, it will recognise that although it was high-handed and hurried in its enactment of the controversial legislation, Labour was at least partly goaded into it by the climate of political opinion stirred up by the National Party, which had gone into overdrive on the vision of a New Zealand in which ordinary Kiwis were excluded from the beaches by zealous iwi.

Such sentiments were underlined by Don Brash's Orewa speech and the party's pre 2005-election Iwi-Kiwi billboard campaign.

None of which diminishes Labour's culpability in making a decision that was politically costly and morally dubious.

To prompt a few memories, that decision came in the wake of - and amid much muttering about activist judges - a Court of Appeal ruling in the 2003 Ngati Apa legal action, which said that Maori could apply to the courts to determine customary land status, and that under the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993 that status was not equivalent to fee simple title (permanent and absolute ownership) - ownership of the land could not be freely transferred, for example - but that on dry or submerged land (whether in lakes or in the sea) it could amount to a potent right of property, including the possibility of allocating space to third parties and controlling access.

At a popular level, the decision was construed by many to mean that under common law access to the beaches could be widely controlled by Maori.

The Government took action to limit the anticipated fallout.

Untangling just what the replacement concept, "public domain", might mean, the extent and shape of its legal parameters, and how that differs from the status quo, is no small challenge.

There will be recourse to the courts, again, to establish customary rights or title, but not outright ownership.

The effect merely seems to be that what Labour had reconsigned to a negotiation process - as with Ngati Porou on the East Coast - will now revert to the courts and/or negotiation, to the advantage, some say, of the legal claims industry.

In the meantime, we will all enjoy the beaches as, probably, we always would have.

I certainly have enjoyed my own beach walks this past weekend, and I ventured into a church.

And as I did so, I ruminated on just how difficult the top Roman hierarchy of the Catholic Church continues to make it for many of its followers and, surely, for most of its more enlightened leadership.

It seems to have become an article of faith in Rome to continue to distance itself and deny - by omission, if nothing else - the great crisis of confidence swirling about it.

Last Friday, to widespread dismay and outright disbelief, Pope Benendict's private preacher compared attacks on the church and the Pope over the sexual abuse scandal to "collective violence" against the Jews.

On Sunday, in a Mass at which the Pope was present, a cardinal made an apparently dismissive reference to the "gossip" affronting the church and his holiness.

Who on earth is giving these people their public relations advice?

• Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.

 

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