Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia is seeking an urgent meeting with John Key over his "insulting" comments about the Waitangi Tribunal as the Prime Minister yesterday went into damage control.
Speaking to the Herald last night, Mrs Turia made what may be her strongest criticism of Mr Key in their 3-year political partnership.
She suggested his comments on Monday and yesterday that his Government "could choose to ignore" any tribunal recommendation to halt the sale of Mighty River Power while Maori water claims were settled, was a politically motivated sop to New Zealanders hostile to Maori attempts to assert claims.
She also said the comments undermined the status of the tribunal and may have been an attempt to influence its findings.
Mrs Turia had not yet spoken with Mr Key about his comments, and was trying to arrange a discussion with him but last night had not heard back from his office.
The tribunal is holding urgent hearings to assess claims by the New Zealand Maori Council, iwi and hapu who say the sale of Mighty River would affect the ability of the Crown to make adequate redress for their claims over freshwater and geothermal resources.
While it would not be binding on the Government, the tribunal could recommend that the sale be halted until the issue of Maori rights over the resources was settled.
Mr Key's comments were helping fuel an "outpouring of absolute racism" by a considerable number of New Zealanders opposed to Maori claims for resources, she said.
"We've always had a very respectful relationship [with National] so it's all the more disappointing for us that it appears that their polling is probably telling them that this is the way to address this issue, to address the fears of the rest of New Zealand."
She said the proper thing for any politician to do was to allow the tribunal to work without interference.
"The concern that I have, and that has been raised with me, is that it may be an attempt to influence those who are on the tribunal representing the Crown." Furthermore, Mr Key's comments were "insulting" to those who took claims to the tribunal.
"People will lose heart and will lose hope if they think they will pay a considerable amount of money to take a claim before the tribunal, where the decision is pre-empted by the Prime Minister." The Maori Party had been under pressure from its supporters throughout the country over Mr Key's comments, and members from all over the country would meet next week to discuss them and associated issues.
Speaking to reporters in Hamilton yesterday, Mr Key said he had never suggested he wouldn't listen to the tribunal's findings.
Those who said he wouldn't were jumping to conclusions.
"I've said we'll take on board what they're saying but the Government's not bound by the Waitangi Tribunal findings and neither have any [other] governments been bound by their findings ... nor are we bound to give a response. We'll be interested to see what the Waitangi Tribunal says, we're acting in good faith, we take the tribunal very seriously."
Meanwhile, Mr Key's comments also came up at the tribunal's hearing in Lower Hutt yesterday.
Lawyer Kathy Ertel said Mr Key was breaching good faith under the treaty process.
Ms Ertel, who is representing Ngati Ruapani, rather than the Maori Council, told the tribunal her clients were "anxious to ensure the public are not dragged into a race riot and that's what this is leading up to".
The tribunal instructed Crown lawyers to address Mr Key's comments "in relation to the good faith of the Government" later during the hearings, which continue this week and for most of next week.