The National Party should be grateful for small mercies. In meeting a Government-imposed deadline, the Waitangi Tribunal ended up releasing its report on water and Maori ownership rights to the resource at the politically dead time of 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon.

That meant John Key and ministers with a portfolio interest in the tribunal's findings could duck calls for something more substantial than an obligatory response thanking the tribunal and promising full consideration of the report's contents.

The Government now has the weekend to contemplate its next move. It needs all the time it can get. The tribunal has effectively turned the tables by cleverly acknowledging, and then acting on, National's demand for urgency given the latter's constant references to the tight timetable for completing the sale of shares in Mighty River Power this year.

The tribunal's suggestion of an urgent national hui to thrash things out water-wise is an invitation National might be wise to think long and hard about before accepting, however.

Advertisement

Negotiation may be the only way forward, but not in a polarising context which has the tribunal weighing in heavily behind the case put up by the Maori Council and asserting that the "just rights of Maori in their water bodies" can no longer be delayed by the Crown.

The tribunal says Maori do not claim to own all water everywhere. However, it has effectively ruled that iwi do have the right to control access to and the use of water in their rohe (territory) - and to reap the commercial benefits to boot.

You can almost feel the hackles rising in Talkbackland. National will not want to be seen to be at the beck and call of the tribunal, not least because it is thought to have benefited in recent polls from talking tough on water, with Key insisting no one owns it.

The Prime Minister could ignore the report and continue to talk tough. That would inevitably result in court action and potential delay in the sale of shares in Mighty River Power until next year.

There is a third option. With the state coal company Solid Energy looking less and less a candidate for sale, National could put its troubled partial privatisation programme on hold while the whole question of Maori rights is well and truly sorted.

Suspending its flagship second-term policy would be galling for National. But that last-resort option is becoming less and less unthinkable by the week.