Audrey Young

Political editor Audrey Young blogs from Parliament

Audrey Young: Government's water-rights dilemma becomes a tale of two hui

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Sir Tumu Te Heuheu speaks during the hui. Photo / Christine Cornege
Sir Tumu Te Heuheu speaks during the hui. Photo / Christine Cornege

It's easy to proclaim unity; it's quite another thing to be unified.

The unity on display at the Maori King's "people's hui" on water on Thursday wasn't exactly replicated yesterday at a gathering of iwi leaders.

It has been a tale of two water hui.

Essentially there are two different tracks operating in a bid to get Maori rights in water addressed in a more significant way than co-management.

The two different hui gave strength to each track.

The people's hui bolstered the legal track, being led by Maori Council co-chairman Sir Edward Taihukurei Durie.

And the Iwi Chairs' Forum boosted the negotiating track with the Government, led by Tuwharetoa paramount chief Sir Tumu te Heuheu.

The King's hui provided at the very least moral support, commitment for financial backing and possibly a bit of ammunition, for the Maori Council's chance of taking a case to the courts for judicial intervention.

The iwi leaders' hui gave Sir Tumu the green light to pursue a more detailed proposal of how a framework around which iwi-by-iwi negotiations could be held.

It might not be the answer to "ownership" that King Tuheitia proclaimed on Thursday, but the framework would give relevant iwi much more control than at present, and potential commercial gain.

It would give Maori a role in governance, environmental standards and allocation rights.

If tradeable water rights are accepted, relevant iwi could get a percentage of the tradeable rights of a particular waterway.

The Government is engaged with the second track, but has given no signals as to what its position is.

Some in Government, however, accept that probably within two years, it will have to approve some radical changes in water policy.

The review will be triggered by the next Land and Water Forum's allocation report.

So there is little point in the Government getting into water right talks when it is about to get a major report. Once that arrives, there will be a convergence of water issues that the Government will be better equipped to deal with.

The Iwi Leaders talks have been happening for four years, quite separately from the Government's share float of state-owned power companies. And they could be concluded quite separately from the SOE issue.

The biggest threat to the Government's acceptance of the Sir Tumu track and water policy in general is the possibility of judicial intervention as pursued by the Sir Eddie track.

Until this point, the Government has discounted the chances of Sir Eddie and the Maori Council being able to derail the share float through the courts.

The Government does not believe the Maori Council has standing in the issue.

It maintains that only affected iwi and hapu have the authority, and refuses to meet the council on the matter.

The King's hui agreed that a small group start talking to the Crown, to try to define Maori rights in water - and that if that didn't happen, a court case should be taken.

The resolution was passed without dissent by about 1000 present including many iwi and hapu leaders there. That binds the Maori Council more closely to iwi.

While it may not necessarily strengthen the Maori Council case, it certainly does it no harm, and it may well get funding it otherwise would not have.

The Government is certain it is on legally safe ground in exercising its power to control water use, and in not having to engage with the Maori Council before floating SOEs.

What it can't be certain of is that the courts would see it that way too.

- NZ Herald

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