Like it or not - and National certainly will not like it - the Waitangi Tribunal has potentially thrown a further spanner into the Government's privatisation agenda.

John Key, however, really has little choice but to accept what is effectively a request from the tribunal to hold off floating shares in Mighty River Power until the tribunal has made its full ruling on what rights and interests in water are guaranteed to Maori under the Treaty.

The tribunal now says its report will be ready in September. It is not saying when in September. Realistically, the Government probably did not expect it to be finished any earlier.

Though reluctantly, the Government will thus be prepared to wait until then. Not to do so would look churlish, petty and overbearing. It would mean more friction with the Maori Party. It would run counter to National's tactic of downplaying any sense of concern about the question of water rights frustrating its privatisation plans.

Advertisement

There is also a view around Parliament that the more difficult Maori and the tribunal make things for the Government, the more National benefits in terms of support from the wider Pakeha electorate.

Given the likelihood of the tribunal ruling against the Crown and subsequent court action if the Government does not agree with the tribunal's finding, it is also in the Government's best interests to show "good faith" with the process and not indicate its displeasure.

The tribunal may be putting the squeeze on the Government's timetable for its share floats. But it is not stopping the Government from readying Mighty River Power for partial sale in the interim. When the coast is finally clear, the Government should be able to immediately get the float under way. Whether that happens in the third quarter of this year is now very much in doubt, however.

What will worry the Government is that what was supposed to be "urgent" action by the tribunal in dealing with the Maori Council's claim over water rights is increasingly being dragged out.

The Government's desire is to get the first share float completed as soon as possible - and as successfully as possible to mute opposition to the partial asset sales.

The longer the delay - especially if it lasts until next year - the greater the chances (although still slight) of National's enthusiasm for the sales wilting and opponents being able to frustrate the process.

Yesterday's request from the tribunal thus seemingly changes nothing yet could change everything.