River spirits have Parliament’s backing


Just when you think it can’t get any sillier, it does.

It proves yet again that we lack sufficient imagination for just how silly government can be.

On August 30 Minister of Treaty Settlements Chris Finlayson signed an agreement (Tutohu Whakatupua) with Brendon Te Tiwha Puketapu, chairman of the Whanganui River Maori Trust Board.

The agreement records the “Te Awa Tupua” elements that will form the basis of the Whanganui River settlement. 

This records that “Te Awa Tupua” captures the Whanganui iwi view that the river is a living being, an indivisible whole incorporating its tributaries and all its physical and metaphysical elements from the mountains to the sea.

Among the elements agreed is statutory recognition for this religious mumbo-jumbo. And statutory recognition of Te Awa Tupua as a legal entity with standing in its own right.

There is to be Te Pou Tupua (as Guardian of the River) to represent the interests of Te Awa Tupua.

There will be two of them, one appointed by the Crown and one by iwi. Their role is to be the human face of Te Awa Tupua and to speak on its behalf.

These two will owe their responsibilities to Te Awa Tupua. They are not responsible to the government or to the people of New Zealand, but to the living, interconnected river and its spirits.

So in 2012 we have state-sanctioned treaty priests answerable only to river ghosts. The long-held separation of church and state is overturned and the religion that Parliament is backing is animism.

What are implications?

I have no idea what the implications of all this are. I am sure that no one else does either, least of all the authors of this agreement or the legislation it promises.

What does it mean to have animism backed in statute? Goodness only knows. Will it become an offence to make fun of the river spirits?

Quite possibly.

In fact, it could be the river spirit that takes action against you.

The river, its people, its spirits are all one and that one is to have legal standing. The one’s representative is Te Pou Tupua.

These two characters will be able to do what they like and have the legal authority to do so.

They are the ones that according to statute will have a hotline to the river gods and their only accountability is to the river gods. What the river gods will be telling them to do only they will know.

Certainly, by law there will be no one else to hold them to account.

Worst fears realised

We know from recent experience that such legal adventurism will prove bigger and more problematic that we can even imagine in our worst fears.

What would seem impossible will become every day and accepted.

Twenty years ago no one would have believed that the Resource Management Act would see a taniwha hold up development. Now it’s not even news.

I travelled around New Zealand warning of the implications of passing the Resource Management Bill into law. I worried at the time I might be exaggerating the possible ill-effects. 

In hindsight, I wasn’t even close to how bad the legislation has turned out.

I know, too, the worst law has always been passed being dismissed as symbolic only and nothing of substance.

We laugh at King Canute ordering the tide not to come in. In truth, he was demonstrating the limit of his kingly power. He wisely knew that there were some things he just couldn’t do, no matter what his advisers thought.

And now today we have our parliament and our government believing they can breathe life into a river, make it live and give it a legal identity.

I have no idea what they’re thinking. I have no idea what it means.

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