Heather du Plessis-Allan: Who calls the shots at northern checkpoints, iwi or police?


The Government should never have tolerated iwi demands for checkpoints in Northland this summer. But it has. And so it’s created a lot of trouble for itself.

No one actually seems to know what to expect on Wednesday when the border comes down and Aucklanders head north.

What we do know is that there will be two checkpoints: one near Uretiti on SH1 and one near Maungaturoto on SH12. We know those checkpoints will be manned by both iwi members and police officers.

But that’s where the certainty ends and the confusion starts.

Police say they’re only doing spot checks. Not every car will be checked.

Tai Tokerau Border Control disagrees. They say every car will be checked. They say police have agreed to allow this and will tolerate some queues as long as health and safety isn’t threatened.

They also say the police will not be the ones calling the shots at the checkpoints. All decisions will be made in “partnership” with iwi. This – if true – means that even if officers believe a queue is growing too long and want to switch from checking every car to only spot-checking the occasional car, they will need iwi agreement.

If this is how it plays out on Wednesday, commuting Aucklanders will be furious, not only at the inconvenience and congestion but also at being misled. Only three weeks ago, the Prime Minister assured Aucklanders they would not have to deal with a hard border and the checking of every car to get out of the city.

But probably the most damaging aspect of this is the sense the Government has deliberately kept the truth from the public.

While it kept assuring the public there would be no iwi-led checkpoints, the Government had actually amended legislation to allow iwi to man checkpoints. It turns out that three weeks ago Labour inserted a clause into the Covid-19 Health Response Act giving various groups including “a nominated representative of an iwi organisation” the power to “close roads and public places and stop vehicles”.

There is a growing sense the Government caved to pressure from Northland iwi and then tried to hide that from the public. Despite numerous questions on the possibility of iwi checkpoints, no government minister or the PM ever volunteered that the law had been changed. Instead, they each ducked and dived and avoid saying anything definitive.

It was only after new National Party leader Chris Luxon drew a line in the sand himself the truth emerged.

The morning after becoming leader last week, Luxon appeared on the Mike Hosking Breakfast Show and labelled iwi checkpoints “nuts”.

That afternoon – now clearly forced to take a position – Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins finally also ruled out iwi checkpoints, saying “The only people who should be putting any roadblocks in place if they are justified by law are the New Zealand Police, so no there should not be any iwi roadblocks being set up.”

But that wasn’t entirely true. Because by then, his government had amended the law and he knew that checkpoints would be set up for Northland iwi. He could argue that they won’t technically be iwi-led checkpoints, because as long as a police officer is present they can be called police checkpoints, but it’s semantics.

What’s happening at Auckland’s northern border to appease iwi is clearly very different to what’s happening at Auckland’s southern border, where there are no plans to have iwi present and where there will only be spot checking of cars.

This problem only threatens to grow now. Gisborne iwi have confirmed they also want to set up checkpoints. They wrote to authorities this week asking permission.

The Northland checkpoints will tie up 300 officers over a month. The public will begrudge that use of police resources at a time when gun crime and gang violence is making the headlines, especially in Auckland.

There’s a very good chance Labour will pay for this in the polls.

It could’ve avoided this if it had just put its foot down.

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