The Waitangi Tribunal has consistently acknowledged a Maori right of development of resources as a Treaty right resulting from article 2 … The right cannot be fossilised as at 1840 and limited only to resources known or used back then.
Claim Wai 776 was received on 9 March 1999 and registered the next day. It was lodged by Rangiaho Everton and concerned a part of the electromagnetic spectrum known as the radio spectrum, which can be used for telecommunications and information technology in general (for example, the internet, cellular phones, video links, and video conferencing can all make use of it).
At that time, the Crown was preparing to auction the rights to manage the radio spectrum in the two gigahertz range. These rights were to last for 20 years and would give the successful bidders the right to issue licences to generate signals. The auction was planned to start on 29 March 1999:
It was the Crown's attempts to sell licences to operate portions of the spectrum into private ownership that had provoked Maori claims to the Waitangi Tribunal. Maori were concerned with the Crown's ‘commercial approach’, which would see the alienation of the resource to powerful corporations.
On 15 March 1999, the claim was the subject of an urgency conference presided over by Judge Hingston. An urgent hearing of the claim followed, at which the claimant sought an urgent interim recommendation that the impending auction be postponed until a negotiated agreement with Maori on the issues had been reached. Claimant counsel noted:
In the context of the radio spectrum, the evidence has illustrated that Maori had traditional knowledge of and used parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. The development of part of that resource through technology able to channel radio waves into intelligible signals is a development to which Maori have a right.
The Tribunal of Judge Patrick Savage (presiding), Josephine Anderson, and Professor Keith Sorrenson made an interim majority finding that prima facie the claim was well founded. The Tribunal recommended that the auction be suspended and that negotiations be commenced with Maori, with a view to reserving for them a fair and equitable portion of the management rights.
The Crown decided to delay the proposed auction for three months to allow time for a substantive hearing to take place and for the Tribunal to report to the Government. That hearing was held between 30 April and 12 May, and the report was presented to the Minister of Maori Affairs and the claimants on 29 June 1999.
The Tribunal was again divided on its findings but, by different paths, reached the conclusion that there was a breach of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and that the claimant would be prejudiced if the Crown were to proceed with the auction without first reserving for Maori a fair and equitable portion of the frequencies. The Tribunal also found that the Radiocommunications Act 1989 was in breach of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. In reaching its findings, the Tribunal cited the Report on the Te Reo Maori Claim and the Treaty principles of partnership, rangatiratanga, fiduciary duty, mutual benefit, and development.
The Tribunal recommended that the Crown suspend the auction of the two gigahertz range of frequencies until it had negotiated with Maori to reserve a just share of the spectrum for them:
In our view, such an arrangement is preferable to some form of compensation by the Crown in lieu of spectrum frequencies. Maori must have hands-on ownership and management if they are to foot it in the ‘knowledge economy’, as we believe they must in the coming millennium.
Because this is in effect a national Maori claim, we recommend that the Crown and Maori consider establishing a Maori trust, somewhat along the lines of the Crown Forestry Rental Trust … Any income that a Maori spectrum trust received - say, from the development or lease of frequencies - could be used to develop infrastructure for remaining Maori frequencies or to educate and train Maori staff for employment in that infrastructure or elsewhere in the telecommunications industry.