Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Can't afford justice

Every year, I feel bemused by the spin about what the country can’t afford, and the things our government chooses to spend money on. Last year seemed particularly stark, but it’s part of an ongoing story. What follows is a list of big payouts I can think of without trying (I’m not commenting on whether they are legitimate, just that they happened).

The government can (and apparently must) spend money to keep large corporations from going broke. The massive bail out of South Canterbury Finance ($1.7 billion, which is such a big number, I prefer to think of it as $400 per person) is the standout, but they’ve been doing it for years. Pretty much every decade there’s a corporation that needs $1-$2 billion to keep up its good work. In the 1990s it was Bank of New Zealand (which got a $1 billion hand out from the government); in the 2000s it was Air New Zealand ($885 million). No doubt the government is giving a bunch of smaller handouts to other corporations that are too paltry to notice. They must be budgeting on $2-$3 billion dollars this decade. This is money the government is simply giving to companies for no reason other than that they screwed up.

Last year, the government decided it could afford to pay 25 % towards repairing “leaky homes”, estimated to cost at least $2 billion. Again, the government didn’t cause the problem with the leaky buildings, it just wants to help out.

The government reckons the country can afford a disaster fund of around $6 billion. Christchurch’s earthquakes will cost more than this, and the government estimates it will need to put in another $1 billion or so to meet its obligations. Again, the government is in no way at fault for the damage, but it can afford to help out.

From 2003 until 2009, the government could afford to set aside over $2 billion per year to build the New Zealand Superannuation Fund (estimated value at November 2011 of $17.6 billion). This is money that the government is saving, so in the future it can give it back to us.

For the 2011/2012 year, the government has a budget of around $82 billion. Of this, they set aside around $3.4 billion for “Defence”, about $9.6 billion for superannuation, and around $3.7 billion servicing debt interest. As a reference point, New Zealand’s estimated gross domestic product for 2011/2012 is around $210 billion.

You’re probably wondering if I have a point. The Crown consistently claims it cannot afford to pay anything like realistic or fair compensation to tangata whenua for the crimes of colonisation, even when it is proven to be at fault, even though it is proven to be benefiting from those crimes. In fact, the Crown claims it can’t afford to fairly compensate tangata whenua for resources before it has even taken them (for example, in taking, dividing up and allocating fisheries or airwaves, or in confiscating the foreshore and seabed). When the Crown decides how much it needs to compensate for its own wrongdoing, it does so not based on what the wronged party believes is fair, nor on an independent ruling on just compensation, nor even on negotiations with the wronged party. The Crown approaches the question of what it ought to pay, by thinking about what it can afford. And the answer it has come up with is somewhere between $1-$2 billion total to cover all claims, whatever they may be for.

It was in the mid-90s that the Crown came up with the figure of $1 billion maximum to settle all “Treaty” claims (you will remember this was about the time they had a spare $1 billion to help out BNZ). They called this the fiscal cap. After the rejection of the fiscal envelope, the Crown no longer refers to the fiscal cap, but they are still working to it (see

To be clear, I don’t begrudge people their payouts from the EQC, or their superannuation, or whatever (although I certainly do begrudge the corporate handouts). What I hate is the double standard. Why are tangata whenua less worthy of fair compensation from the Crown for resources the Crown took from them and then made a profit on? Why don’t the media and public get excited about this? If we can muster outrage that the EQC or council has mucked someone around for a year or so, what about people who have been fighting for justice for generations?

Why is there so little pressure on the Crown to even consider what a fair resolution with tangata whenua might look like. If the Crown can afford $3 billion+ per year for defence, or to save $2 billion+ per year towards future bills, but can’t afford more than $2 billion total for Treaty settlements, I’m pretty sure it’s not trying very hard. It certainly isn’t trying when, in creating a new property right as it did with fisheries and airwaves, it must be forced by the courts to set a small fraction aside for tangata whenua. It really isn’t trying when it gives itself the entire foreshore and seabed, even denying tangata whenua the right to test their ownership in court. And it doesn’t seem interested in other ways to rebalance its relationships with tangata whenua. It is stuck in defensiveness and denial.

The Crown claims it can only afford to offer us crumbs and scraps while it feasts at our table. It can find extra for corporate incompetence, disasters, the future even—but not for fixing its own misdeeds. Until it commits to balancing the relationship between tangata whenua and tangata tiriti, our grievances will live on. We will continue to bang on about sovereignty, justice and tino rangatiratanga; we will continue to educate and to organise. We will grind away. The Crown will find it cannot afford to ignore us.


  1. Anonymous9:47 pm

    The 'Treaty settlement process' must be the only judicial process where, once guilt has been decided, the aggrieved party must negotiate with the perpetrator.

    It's a bit like having your house burgled, and being told to negotiate with the crim, who says "OK, I did it, sorry. Now I've already sold your car, so you can't have that back. I'm going to keep your TV, 'cos I can't afford to buy a new one, but I'll give you your DVD player, as long as you sign this bit of paper saying this is a full and fair settlement, OK? No? Well take it or leave it, mate."

    Probably though, a fair settlement is beyond the crown, which would be bankrupted if it actually made fair redress by way of financial compensation - however that could be worked out.

    Fair enough to get what you can from the crown, but ultimately, wrongs wil only be righted (sort of) by a structural decolonisation of this country.


    Sam Buchanan

  2. Hey Sam, thanks for your comment.

    I agree that a fair settlement is beyond the capacity of the Crown to give, if we're talking about returning some physical stuff, cash, or access to resources. Colonisation involves taking much more than that, most damaging it involves taking power, sovereignty, autonomy--rangatiratanga. When the Crown is forced to reconsider its exclusive sovereignty and government, then there will be opportunity to consider fair settlement. I expect this is what you mean by structural decolonisation?

    There are exciting treaty claims that force the Crown to consider how it came to govern (like the WAI262, but there are plenty more). I used to think treaty claims were worse than pointless (because asking the Crown to rule on whether or not it has a right to rule only acknowledges Crown authority), but now I think they have a place. By asking the system to justify itself, there is opportunity for more people to recognise that continued exclusive Crown rule isn't inevitable. Maybe they will contribute (in time) to changing the conversation, and eventually to forcing actual change.

    I think it has finally dawned on the Crown that tangata whenua aren't going away. I think even Key recognises that it's going to take more than returning tiny fractions of the physical resources that were taken.

    In summary, yes, I agree. Structural decolonisation, and oceans of education about our history.

  3. Anonymous11:29 am

    Not sure about Key's understanding - perhaps he thinks that Maori can be treated the same as Pakeha - create a small wealthy class and buy the rest off with continual promises of future prosperity and a flat screen TV in every home. If this is the case, I think it's at least a little less cynical than the Labour Party and their ilk, who I think did understand the basic injustice of colonisation, but also understood that dealing with it involved giving up power, so chose to go with a campaign of nice rhetoric and minor concessions (mostly cultural window dressing), to convince people that the issue was being dealt with and that anybody who said otherwise was "a hater and wrecker".

    An example of this is the Kapiti Coast District Council fighting tooth and nail to prevent Maori getting back land that had been taken under the Public Works Act (for the airport), then sticking a macron over the 'a' in Kapiti and acting like they'd done something for Maori.

    And yes, oceans of education about our history, and also a political or ethical analysis of that history, so that it can't be written off as things that happened in the past and are no longer relevant.


    Sam Buchanan

  4. Anonymous11:31 am

    PS. Is there an official exchange rate of macrons to the hectare? Perhaps Maori could do some trading?

    - Sam