Ihumātao deal: Labour accused of 'empowering radicals' as Grant Robertson celebrates fending off his generation's Bastion Point

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson feared Ihumātao could become his generation's Bastion Point and is now celebrating confirmation the Government will purchase the land to settle the dispute. 

But the Opposition parties are not happy, with National's finance spokesperson Michael Woodhouse accusing Labour of "paying off protesters" while ACT leader David Seymour says the Prime Minister has "empowered radicals". 

Robertson confirmed on Thursday that the Government will purchase the land at Ihumātao for $29.9 million as part of a Memorandum of Understanding, or He Pūmautanga, signed by the Kīngitanga, the Crown and Auckland Council. 

Housing Minister Megan Woods said parties have committed to there being housing on the site. The land could be used to include Papakainga housing, housing for mana whenua and some public housing. 

The south Auckland land is being purchased from Fletcher Building under the Land for Housing Programme, which purchases land from the private market to provide residential land supply for development.

Kīngitanga will lead a process to establish a group, to be known as Rōpu Whakahaere, which will plan and implement the objectives of the agreement. Auckland Council will be an observer and work with the Rōpu Whakahaere to achieve the goals. 

"This is an innovative and unique solution for these unique circumstances but I believe it is the right thing to do," Robertson told reporters on Friday in Wellington. 

"We had a situation that was on its way to being my generation's Bastion Point and I was not prepared - and the Government was not prepared - to stand to the side and allow what could have been a very divisive and destructive period of time."

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson. Photo credit: Getty

Bastion Point, a coastal piece of land in Auckland's Orakei overlooking the Waitematā Harbour, is the site of protests by Māori against forced land alienation by Pākehā in the late 1970s. 

Similar to Ihumātao, protesters were removed from the land in 1978, and it got ugly with buildings and gardens demolished. Ten years later, the Waitangi Tribunal supported Māori claims to the land, and returned it to local iwi Ngāti Whātua. 

"I believe we've come up with a solution that is appropriate to the circumstances of this whenua. It is something where we have involved as many of those who have an interest as possible," Robertson said of Ihumātao. 

"There is still some time to go in this process but ultimately it will lead I believe to an enduring solution which engages all of the people who need to be engaged in this particular piece of land."

What happened at Ihumātao?

Ihumātao is an area of historical significance for Māori near Auckland Airport, where activists have been protesting against Fletcher Building's plans to build almost 500 homes on land it purchased, that was confiscated in 1863 by the Crown.

Protesters from the Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) movement said the land should be returned to Māori, and occupation of the land ramped up in July 2019 after police served occupiers with an eviction notice. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern negotiated a temporary halt to construction at the site in July 2019 while a solution was sought. 

Opposition to the Government purchasing the land has focused on fears that it could place a question mark over all full and final Treaty of Waitangi settlements. 

But Robertson rejects that because the land at Ihumātao has been purchased in a transaction that's outside the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process, avoiding any conflicts with other settlements.

"Let's be very clear - this is not part of the treaty settlement process and that is acknowledged by Kīngitanga and by the parties to the agreement so it's quite different from that," Robertson said. 

National's finance spokesperson Michael Woodhouse.
National's finance spokesperson Michael Woodhouse. Photo credit: File

Woodhouse disagrees with the approach. 

"Taxpayers aren't a bank to be called upon to clean up the Government's poor decisions, particularly when it is meddling in private property rights," he said. Taxpayers buying the Government out of this mess isn't a solution."

Seymour said the Prime Minister has "empowered radicals who threatened to disturb the peace and rewarded them with the gift" of someone else's property.

"Buying Fletcher Building out of Ihumātao has formalised Jacinda Ardern's worst decision as Prime Minister. It is the equivalent of the US President siding with Antifa over the businesses they vandalise," he said, referring to the left-wing political movement in the US. 

"It's now clear, if you own land and someone squats on it, the Prime Minister won't defend your property rights, she'll use taxpayers' money to buy the land off you."

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson described it as a good first step. 

"I am hopeful that this process can go some way to healing the pain caused by the wrongful confiscation of this land from mana whenua in 1863," Davidson said. 

"The Crown has a moral obligation to fund the purchase of this land today, given it dispossessed the mana whenua of this land in the first place."

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Getty

Attempts by Labour to settle the dispute were repeatedly blocked by its former coalition partner NZ First, which was voted out of Parliament at the election. 

NZ First leader Winston Peters told supporters before the election that Labour asked his party to use its 'agree to disagree' clause in their coalition agreement over Ihumātao but the request was refused three times. 

Robertson acknowledged that NZ First held up progress on Ihumātao. 

"I don't think it's any secret that New Zealand First was not supportive of the kind of outcome that we're announcing today, so we've taken the opportunity post-election to revisit where we were at, had some more discussions with all of the players involved, and come to this resolution."

The Government is purchasing the land at $10 million more than the $19 million Fletchers paid for it back in 2014 and $10 million less than the $40 million the company wanted for it. 

"That was the subject of negotiation. As you can imagine with Fletchers... I think Fletchers would say it sort of breaks even for them in terms of the land," Robertson said. 

"I've seen estimates of its value being significantly higher than that. I believe this is an appropriate price to pay that recognises what Fletchers paid for the land in the first place, the costs they've incurred over the last few years, and from a taxpayer point of view it's important to me that we now have the ability for this land to be used for housing and for other purposes too."

Fletcher Building CEO Ross Taylor thanked the Government for the "pragmatic way" they approached the process.