‘We haven’t forgotten’: Māori landowners continue fight against perpetual leases

Tokomaru Bay is home to a number of land blocks which are held under perpetual lease. Photo / Ben Cowper / Gisborne Herald

By Matthew Rosenberg, Local Democracy Reporter

For 100 years, land at Tokomaru Bay has been locked up under archaic legislation, shutting Māori landowners out of what is rightfully theirs. But one woman is refusing to give up the fight to get it back. Matthew Rosenberg speaks with Tina Olsen-Ratana about a battle she’s undertaken for the next generation.

The ink has long dried on a petition to abolish perpetual leases, and the toots and cheers in response to a small, spirited, hīkoi have faded into silence. It’s been one year since the community gathered to protest archaic legislation locking Māori landowners out of their whenua at Tokomaru Bay.

Cyclones have come and gone in that time, reshaping the land under their weight. But in other ways, the land has remained untouched.

As the weather systems become increasingly unpredictable, the people of Tokomaru Bay will tell you there’s one thing they can count on - that the Tuatini land blocks remain forever just out of reach.

Tina Olsen-Ratana pictured with her moko Akakaingaro in front of a pou, Hamoterangi/Ruataupare, which represents inclusiveness of all whānau affected by the loss of whenua. Photo / Paul Rickard / Gisborne Herald

“For us, it’s still a real live issue,” Tina Olsen-Ratana says over the phone from Wellington.

“I guess I’m not tired because I think, ‘our tipuna could fight this, and they have been fighting this for 100 years’. Then how can you say you’re tired?”

Olsen-Ratana is one of 390 beneficial owners of land at Tokomaru Bay dubbed the Tuatini Township Blocks. The three blocks contain a total of 13 sections and are home to old shops, accommodation and residential property.

But because of a government clerical error that occurred sometime in the 1920s, the land was incorrectly issued under the Public Bodies Leases Act 1908, with a strict set of conditions imposed.

That includes a fixed rent of 5 per cent of the unimproved value of rural land (or 4 per cent for urban land) for 21 years at a time. The real dagger is that the leases are set for 999 years, and are perpetually renewable.

As a result, the owners have no control over who leases the land, how long it is leased for or even what kind of businesses or buildings occupy the space. If Olsen-Ratana and the other beneficial owners want to claim it back for their own purposes, they can do so through a process called “first right of refusal”.

Tamaki Legal managing director Darrell Naden. Source / NZ Herald

But they’ll also have to stump up the asking price, which in the case of a 2022 example was $599,000 for a beachfront property leased by N and L Truman since 1968. Co-ordinating such a purchase has proven too difficult a task, but that doesn’t mean the owners have given up.

“You’ve got to keep the fight on,” Olsen-Ratana says.

An ongoing battle

On the back of media coverage about the leases in February 2022, that fight was reignited with a 2300-strong online petition to end perpetual leases, set up by Belinda Tuari-Toma. The petition web page paints a grim picture: “the whenua ... provides a paltry income for its beneficiaries and is subject to legislation which severely limits the owners’ options”.

According to a 2020 financial report by Te Tumu Paeroa - the Māori Trustee who administers the land - she’s not wrong. That document states each owner walked away with just $15 in rent for the blocks they held that year.

On Queen’s Birthday in 2022, around 40 people from as far afield as Levin, Auckland and Hamilton descended on the small town of around 500 to protest the archaic legislation that had locked them out.

Extra traffic funnelling through the town from a rugby game up the coast in Ruatoria provided an extra layer of car horns, and even a police car joined the cacophony, much to the delight of those lining the sidewalk with placards.

At that time optimism was high, and Olsen-Ratana was engaging with Hamilton-based McCaw Lewis Lawyers to lobby the Government. Via a series of letters to Minister for Māori Development Willie Jackson, the request was made to undertake a review of Māori land legislation.

But after three months of radio silence, Olsen-Ratana received the disappointing news from Minister Jackson just a few days after the Queen’s Birthday hīkoi that although he supported the steps taken to resume increased control of the land, he could not support a review of Māori land legislation. The petition was never delivered to Parliament, and everything went quiet for six months.

In January, former Green Party MP Elizabeth Kerekere took up the mantle, vowing to make the abolition of perpetual leases - which apply to around 26,000 hectares of land around the country - an election issue. Then the cyclone hit, Kerekere was ousted from her party and silence ensued once more.

Former Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere. Photo / Doug Sherring

Despite the ups and downs of the past 18 months, Olsen-Ratana says the fight is still very much on, and she’s actively trying to engage with ministers to create the change she wants to see.

“We gave it a rest for a few months because we had to let our whenua heal,” she says. “We’ve got to keep fighting. Where are we going to go? Continue to be displaced, as we are?”

Olsen-Ratana says it will take a change in legislation to undo the act that has left her and other owners “shackled”, something that “can only be done by the stroke of a pen in Parliament”. A Māori land expert isn’t so sure, however.

‘Throwing the dice’

Tamaki Legal managing director Darrell Naden is fully on the side of the landowners, but believes it’s unrealistic to put hope in the Government to make the change. The main reason is cost.

If the legislation was cancelled and the land handed back to its rightful owners, there would be significant fallout from longstanding tenants demanding compensation. A similar ssue unfolded in Taranaki around 20 years ago, he says, where compensation was paid out to upset farmers in Taranaki who drove tractors to Parliament in protest at being stripped of leases.

A group at Tokomaru Bay protesting perpetual leases. Photo / Paul Rickard / Gisborne Herald

“And this is the hot potato problem for your Labour Government ... and why it will not get political traction,” Naden says. “I didn’t pin my hopes on any political resolution of the situation, because of this financial reality.”

Despite this, Naden says there is the possibility of a case through the Māori Land Court, which could set a precedent if successful. The specifics he prefers to keep under wraps until a later date.

“Now we’re left with very few other options but to sue. That presents a whole bunch of other problems like legal fees and how they’re met. You’re rolling the dice here with the court ... None of this is easy.”

None of it is new, either.

Naden knows the issues affecting Māori land better than most, and says perpetual leases are just the tip of the iceberg. Between erroneous Native Land Court decisions where land blocks went to the wrong people, and local councils confiscating whenua through the Noxious Weeds Act 1950, there were plenty of painful examples to choose from.

“There’s just a whole lot of this kind of harm that’s suffered over the years that’s just worn by the people. And little can be done. If anything, the perpetual lease issue highlights a whole bunch of other, just as egregious problems, facing the people.”

Asked how he stays positive in his mahi, Naden said there were still things to celebrate, such as the revitalisation of te reo Māori.

“You get your wins, and you get your hits, as you go down swinging.”

For those who are familiar with the fight, such as Olsen-Ratana, there are no plans to give up soon. It doesn’t matter how the land is returned, just so long as it happens.

“For someone to take that off us, this fundamental right of our belonging, is wrong,” she says. “So we can’t give this up. This won’t go away, and we haven’t forgotten.”

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.