Wellington, March 31 NZPA - The Government wants to end arguments about ownership of the foreshore and seabed by saying no one owns it and restoring the right of Maori to go to court to seek customary title.
Attorney-General Chris Finlayson said the new approach would be a "more sophisticated way of balancing New Zealanders' interests".
The proposal follows a ministerial review which found that the Foreshore and Seabed Act was unfair because it removed property rights available to Maori.
"The Government proposes that, instead of identifying an owner of the foreshore and seabed, new legislation would provide that no one owns, or can own, the foreshore and seabed. This area would be called a public domain. The proposal would recognise New Zealanders' rights and interests, rather than being concerned with ownership," Mr Finlayson said.
The proposal would allow for both public access and recognition of customary rights.
Maori would be restored the right to go to court to establish customary title, but not freehold title.
Maori seeking customary title would have new tests set and awards prescribed based on similar overseas common law and Maori custom.
Mr Finlayson's preference was for claims to be settled by negotiation rather than the courts and this could include recognising customary interests in other ways than land titles.
The changes would restore the right of Maori to test their claims in court while ensuring access to the coast was retained, he said.
The concept of public domain was originally proposed by United Future leader Peter Dunne in 2004, but was dropped.
In today's discussion document the Government put up four options, but made it clear the concept of public domain was its preferred path.
Other options include:
* restoring the right to claim customary title but retaining notional Crown ownership until customary rights were proven;
* tinkering with the status quo; and
* vesting ownership in Maori, determining who would hold ownership in a given area, while recognising others' rights.
Under all the options parts of the foreshore and seabed currently in private ownership or subject to existing property right (such as fishing quota) would remain that way.
The Government would also retain its legislative powers over coastal areas.
Mr Finlayson said the customary title envisaged would be restrained in that it would not be able to be converted into freehold land.
"I don't think too many people would have a problem with that... Hone Harawira said it should not be sold," Mr Finlayson said.
The controversial Foreshore and Seabed Act followed a 2003 Court of Appeal ruling in the Ngati Apa case that raised the possibility, in some narrow instances, for Maori customary title to convert into freehold title -- potentially putting parts of the coastline under Maori control and restricting public access.
The previous government was not prepared to accept that position and legislated against the ruling, causing widespread unrest among Maori and the resignation from the Labour Party of Tariana Turia, who went on to form the Maori Party.
The current law vests the foreshore and seabed in Crown ownership and sets up a process to recognise customary claims and practices on coastal areas, but many Maori feel it stripped them of rights.
Mr Finlayson said Prime Minister John Key had made it clear that if there was not broad consensus to change the status quo would remain.
Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said the repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act was one step closer to reality.
Mrs Turia said the Government's discussion document released today laid out two issues - restoration of property rights and access to justice - that sit behind the party's commitment for repeal.
"This issue was never about stopping public access to beaches, it was about an act that denied Maori, who never relinquished their kaitiakitanga and rangatiratanga over the foreshore and seabed, access to justice - the right to go to court to have their claims heard," Mrs Turia said.
"Our priority is repeal - we promised our people we'd get it so that's our main objective. Beyond repeal is to get the best deal for our mokopuna," Mrs Turia said.