New Zealand's PM vows to settle all Maori land claims by 2020

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The Independent Online

The governing Labour Party, seeking a fourth term in next month's general election, has unveiled a surprise pledge to wrap up new claims by 2008 and have all suits settled by 2020.

The party had shied away from deadlines for indigenous compensation claims, but the change came in response to right-wing pledges to finish the process by the end of the year.

"The time has come to seek finality," Helen Clark, the Prime Minister, said. "We are announcing that Labour is setting a date by which all those claims must be lodged so that we can conclude settlements within a reasonable timeframe."

The centre-right National Party set the agenda early this year when its leader, Don Brash, labelled the claims the "grievance industry"; his popularity soared. Mr Brash has targeted anti-Maori sentiment among many New Zealanders at a legal process that shows few signs of finishing soon.

The National Party has also pledged to roll back any legislation granting special privileges to Maoris. Mr Brash said yesterday that the Labour initiative was akin to "putting a band-aid on a gaping wound".

The claims stem from the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, under which the Maori agreed to British sovereignty in return for the protection of their rights. The Maori make up about 15 per cent of New Zealand's population of four million.

Joanne Morris, the senior Waitangi Tribunal presiding officer, told The New Zealand Herald last year she believed it could be time to impose a deadline for all claims to be lodged. However, it is unlikely the government could impose a definite cut-off date, as such a move would raise serious human rights concerns.

Traditionally, Labour has discounted the idea of imposing settlement deadlines, but after Mr Brash's speech promising a swift end to the claims, they appear to have been forced into a turnaround. Mrs Clark said that eight claims had been settled since Labour came to power in 1999. The Office of Treaty settlements says there are up to 50 to resolve; 1,236 claims have been registered since 1975 and 134 claims have been dealt with. The Waitangi Tribunal has reported on, is investigating, or preparing to investigate 762 claims.