John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Mighty River Power saga doomed to flow on and on

(L to R) Mighty River Power CEO Doug Heffernan, Chair Joan Withers and CFO William Meek in front of the media at Rydges hotel in central Auckland this morning. The executives were giving a media bri
(L to R) Mighty River Power CEO Doug Heffernan, Chair Joan Withers and CFO William Meek in front of the media at Rydges hotel in central Auckland this morning. The executives were giving a media bri

In the matter of Mighty River Power and Maori ownership rights to water, yesterday's action in the High Court - to quote Winston Churchill - is at least the end of the beginning of this saga, if not the beginning of the end.

It is some eight months since the Maori Council laid claims of Maori ownership and governance to the water used by state-owned hydro power stations in front of the Waitangi Tribunal. There is an awfully long way to go yet and any blanket declarations of victory are absurdly premature.

Whichever side comes out on top from next month's substantive High Court hearing of the Maori Council's challenge to the sale of 49 per cent of state-owned enterprise Mighty River Power, the other is likely to seek to overturn that court's ruling by going to the Court of Appeal and, if that fails, the Supreme Court.

Not surprisingly, the Maori Council and associated plaintiffs claimed victory yesterday after the High Court determined that there would be a full hearing on the issues raised by their challenge.

It would have been surprising if Justice Ron Young had not granted the application.

National had long accepted that the Mighty River Power sale would end up in court. It was thus fairly predictable that once the court had flagged the holding of a substantive hearing that yesterday's Cabinet's meeting would decide to delay pushing through an order-in-council which would have transferred Mighty River Power from under the ambit of the State Owned Enterprises Act to the Public Finance (Mixed Ownership Model) Amendment Act.

Not to have done so would have been provocative and struck an ugly note in what was a mood for compromise over issues of process.

The threat of such an order-in-council - which would effectively have signalled National's partial asset sales programme was once again formally under way - had anyway done its job of flushing out the Maori Council to file papers with the High Court last Friday.

Without that threat, the Maori Council might have continued to delay going to the court, thereby jeopardising National's revised timetable for partial asset sales.

The pertinent question now is whether the time that will be taken up with next month's High Court hearing and subsequent appeals will prevent the Government meeting its deadline of next March for reigniting the partial privatisation programme.

Justice Young has accepted government pleas and expedited a hearing in the High Court as soon as practically possible. National will have its fingers crossed that higher levels of the judiciary will be equally accommodating.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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