Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Time running out to stop sale of children's future

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Benmore Dam owner Meridian Energy is slated for partial sale. Photo / Simon Baker
Benmore Dam owner Meridian Energy is slated for partial sale. Photo / Simon Baker

The race is on. Can the Government get the first power company on the auctioneer's block before the Waitangi Tribunal ruling gets in the way of the sale of Mighty River Power?

The Maori Council has asked the tribunal to rule on whether anyone owns the rights to water and if so, who.

Every government department and public servant is required to sign up to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. From experience most of us know that you have to be careful what you sign up to, because it might just come back and bite you on the bum.

The second article is where the government asset sale programme might run into trouble. In part it reads "... the Queen of England confirms and guarantees to the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and to the respective families and individuals thereof the full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands and Estates Forests Fisheries and other properties ..."

The Tribunal is being asked whether these Treaty rights include water. Even the dimmest of us knows that it isn't reasonable for one Treaty partner to sell businesses that rely on large volumes of water, before the other partner has had its case heard.

In any event, any prudent buyer of the power companies would want it resolved before they pony up with their bucks. If the Government ignores due diligence and bulldozes through the sell-off, any investor would have a strong case to sue for damages if the Maori Council case is upheld and they end up having to pay a premium for water rights that wasn't in the purchase price.

John Key's biggest and strongest claim is that he has a mandate from New Zealanders because he foreshadowed the sales before the last election and his party won. The Labour-led alternative government lost. It's a matter of fact that he has a one-vote majority in Parliament to pass it, but does that amount to a public mandate? Of course not.

The latest dilemma for the Government is more dangerous for another reason. The Keep Our Assets campaign set up to co-ordinate a Citizens Initiated Referendum is gaining ground.

They need 307,000 voters to sign their petition. Once they get the numbers, the Government will be required to put Key's whole privatisation scheme to a nationwide vote. After we've had both sides of the debate, every voter will have the right to vote. That's the last thing Key wants. That's why he's panicking.

The Save Our Assets campaign has reached close to 250,000 signatories. Because some people will have signed twice, we'd need another 100,000 or so to reach the number required to force a vote.

While other political parties and organisations have talked a good game, the Greens have committed themselves wholly to the campaign, accounting for half of the total signatures.

If every party and organisation that has been tardy on this matter until now pulls finger over the next several weeks, we could force the referendum before the Government even gets to flick off the first asset.

But why leave it to others? Ultimately the anti-privatisation campaign will be won if individuals who care about who owns New Zealand do some of the heavy lifting. If just one person out of 20 who oppose it downloaded the petition, signed it and sent it back this week we'd have this petition filed in Parliament in a fortnight, putting the whole privatisation agenda on the ropes.

Our grandchildren are either going to grow up in a world where their basic utilities are owned and run as a community service or run by multi-nationals to maximise their profits.

That decision will be made by people like you. It's that easy, really. But time is running out.

- Herald on Sunday

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