Up to 20,000 angry Maoris led by bare-chested warriors in flax skirts crammed the grounds of the New Zealand parliament yesterday to protest at government plans to nationalise the country's seabed and foreshore.
Some of the demonstrators had marched for two weeks, starting at the top of the North Island, to bring their message to the seat of government in Wellington. They blew conch shells and waved banners claiming indigenous ownership of the coastline, while 40 warriors armed with clubs and spears staged a traditional Maori haka, or war dance.
The march, known as a hikoi, was the biggest Maori protest staged for decades and was joined by people from all corners of New Zealand. In Wellington, tribal elders in feather cloaks, schoolchildren and businessmen in suits braved showers and gale-force winds. Organisers estimated the crowd at 20,000, while police said more than 15,000 people turned out.
The controversial Bill to place the seabed and foreshore under public control, which will be debated for the first time today, follows a court case last year that paved the way for Maoris to claim legal ownership.
The Labour government of Helen Clark, which has been otherwise sympathetic to indigenous rights, says the legislation is intended to protect public access to beaches and fisheries while accommodating customary Maori activities such as seafood gathering on their ancestral lands.
Maoris say the policy - which would affect the whole New Zealand coastline apart from small parcels of land already in private hands - would deprive them of their traditional ownership of coastal areas.
Ms Clark refused to meet the protesters yesterday and branded some of the march's organisers "wreckers and haters". However, the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Cullen, and several Maori ministers came out to give them a traditional tribal greeting.
The policy has split the government, with one junior Maori minister, Tariana Turia, quitting her post last week. She intends to resign her parliamentary seat, forcing a by-election. Another Maori MP has said she will vote against the legislation. Ms Clark plans to push it through by enlisting the support of New Zealand First, a small anti-migrant party.
Maori people say the policy violates the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, under which the British Crown gained sovereignty over New Zealand in exchange for guaranteed access to traditional lands and resources. A march in 1975 about land grievances led to changes in the law which led to multimillion- dollar settlements for illegal confiscations of land and breaches of the treaty.
One of the march organisers, Pita Sharples, described the legislation as "a blatant cancellation of our rights". She said: "It's theft. Every time Maori get some advantage, it's taken away from us. This is the straw that broke the camel's back." One tribal elder, Sir Graeme Latimer, a former chairman of the national Maori Council, urged Ms Clark to take heed. "You can't ignore 20,000 people gathered on a cold day," he said.
But Ms Clark told MPs inside parliament: "We hear the concern being expressed, but my message is we must govern in the interests of all New Zealanders to get a fair balance, which is what we are striving for." Opinion polls suggest most New Zealanders support the policy. The new leader of the centre-right National Party, Don Brash, has surged in the opinion polls since he called for an end to "preferential treatment" for Maoris, who make up about 15 per cent of the population.
Ms Clark responded to the polls by saying that her government would re-examine all such policies - a declaration that further alienated Maori people, who have traditionally supported Labour. An election is expected later this year.
The Prime Minister enraged protesters yesterday by saying she would rather meet Shrek - the enormously woolly sheep that has acquired notoriety in recent weeks for refusing to be shorn for six years - than them.
Tempers flared after a long-time activist, Tame Iti, abused and spat at Mr Cullen and the Maori Affairs Minister, Parekura Horomia, who supports the legislation. Mr Horomia said: "It's derogatory, it's disgusting. Tame is the old face of the Maori. There is a new face, a very buoyant, young, intelligent face, and you don't see many of them here today."
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