Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Maori fight over asset sales likely to head straight to Supreme Court

Both the Maori Council and the Prime Minister, John Key, have said they will probably lodge an appeal if they lose. Photo / Simon Baker
Both the Maori Council and the Prime Minister, John Key, have said they will probably lodge an appeal if they lose. Photo / Simon Baker

The Maori Council's challenge to the Government's partial asset sales plan is likely to bypass the Court of Appeal and go directly to the Supreme Court early next year in order to meet the looming deadline for the sale of Mighty River Power.

The council's High Court bid to block the Government's "mixed ownership model" until a mechanism to address Maori proprietary water rights is established came to an end yesterday in Wellington after a two and half day hearing.

Justice Ronald Young, who could delay the Government's $5-$7 billion asset sales plan for months if not years by finding in favour of the council, said he was likely to issue his judgement before Christmas.

Both the council and Prime Minister John Key have said they will probably appeal that decision if they lose, which Justice Young acknowledged yesterday.

"I'm a bus stop on the way to the ultimate destination", he said.

But with the Government planning on selling up to 49 per cent of Mighty River some time between March and June next year and the courts taking a month long break in the new year, time is tight for appeal hearings.

In his affidavit to the court, Treasury Deputy Secretary John Crawford said all appeals would have to be completed by February 18 in order to meet the Government's preferred timetable or by March 11 to have any chance of selling Mighty River shares before the end of June. Any delay would create a big hole in the Government's expected revenues and result in increased debt.

Mr Key yesterday said a decision from Justice Young before Christmas was "broadly in line" with Crown expectations and he believed that would leave sufficient time for appeals next year.

He has previously indicated the Crown may seek to go directly to the Supreme Court if it loses in the High Court.

Maori Council lawyer Felix Geiringer said the council would also consider applying to go directly to he Supreme Court if it lost.

While the Supreme Court only heard appeals from a court other than the Court of Appeal in exceptional circumstances, the water rights case appeared to meet that requirement.

"Firstly, it's clearly a matter of significant public importance and secondly, the Crown are saying that the timetable is such that it's just not practical for it to be heard by both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court."

Should it lose, the Maori Council would likely seek to go directly to the Supreme Court for the same reason. The Supreme Court was unlikely to grant a temporary delay to the share float for the case to be heard if the council had lost in both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, Mr Geiringer said. That presented the risk for the council that the sale could be completed before the Supreme Court issued its decision.

- NZ Herald

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