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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Asset sales victory vital, but not assured

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Winners in Mighty Power plan are Heffernan ... and Peters

Doug Heffernan. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Doug Heffernan. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The $500,000 carrot to keep Doug Heffernan at the helm of Mighty River Power until the company's partial privatisation is a reminder of how National's asset sales programme keeps on throwing up curly questions.

That Mighty River Power was picked as the first candidate for a minority share float is tribute to Heffernan, who has been chief executive of the state-owned electricity generator since it was formed in 1998.

On balance, the company's board was probably justified in taking a precautionary view and offering a half-million dollar incentive to entice Heffernan to stay until December next year.

But not everyone will agree. Once performance payments and KiwiSaver contributions are included, Heffernan's package last year was close to topping $1.5 million - more than three times the Prime Minister's salary and allowances and nearly five times what Bill English gets as one of Heffernan's shareholding ministers.

Heffernan, of course, is not the only high-flyer enjoying the fruits of privatisation.

According to the Treasury's annual report, about $6 million was paid to various consultants in the year to last July to implement the Mixed Ownership Model and prepare the float of up to 49 per cent of Mighty River Power.

The Treasury had budgeted about $20 million for that work. With the sale delayed, the department has simply shifted that appropriation into the next financial year.

John Key has declined to comment on Heffernan's bonus, as has Labour leader David Shearer.

But there is someone else who could benefit from the generosity shown to Heffernan - Winston Peters.

The hefty size of the bonus payment offers a fresh line of attack in Peters' long-running campaign against privatisation.

But the real beauty of the asset sales programme for the NZ First leader is that its unpopularity threatens to cut even deeper in some quarters because of its new Maori dimension.

Peters has long attacked what he calls the Treaty "gravy train". With the Maori Council and some iwi seeking redress in the courts over ownership of water rights, the Treaty vehicle is now seemingly hitched to the privatisation model.

The saving grace for National is that Maoridom is split.

While Peters can continue to single out the business elite for feathering their own nest through the sale of state assets, he cannot level the same charge at the Maori elite with such ease, given the Iwi Leaders Group has eschewed court action.

Still, Peters' excursion into the race-based politics of privatisation - last month, he advised all New Zealanders to pretend to be Maori - puts him one up on Labour and the Greens whose target audiences will not let them enter such territory.

All this is added reason why it is essential for National that the Crown emerges as victor from next month's hearing in the High Court on the Maori Council's application to block the part sale of Mighty River Power until the Crown sets up an acceptable way of protecting Maori cultural and proprietary rights in freshwater and geothermal resources.

Giving the Maori Council a bloody nose would go down well in some National quarters, and it would spike Peters' attempt to drain support from National.

While the share float might remain unpopular, victory would be an enormous psychological fillip for the Government which has had a torrid time of late.

Paradoxically, a High Court judgment in the Government's favour might also be good news for the Maori Party.

Beehive sources say the Maori Council's stance on water rights has removed National's ability to be flexible to the wishes of its support partner.

While defeat for the Maori Council would result in it going - if it can afford to do so - to the Court of Appeal and, if necessary, the Supreme Court, a Crown victory in the High Court would breathe new life not only into the asset sales policy, but underline National's right and capacity to govern.

By the same token, defeat for the Crown in the High Court does not bear thinking about.

You can only delay something for so long.

A ruling against the Government might well push the privatisation programme into National's next term and thus effectively into the never-never.

That would be a huge morale-crusher for the National caucus and the wider party.

The Government cannot rule out an outbreak of judicial activism on the bench, so it has invested considerable time and effort in getting all its legal ducks in a row.

The most critical element has been its attempt to nullify the Waitangi Tribunal's advocacy of the "shares plus" concept which would recognise that Maori do have commercial water rights and this must be reflected in Maori being given an enhanced role in the governance and management of that resource before any change in ownership of the hydro stations.

The Government has sought to display good faith by consulting Maori and stressing it had an open mind on the merits of shares-plus.

Those claims have been treated with derision by Maori who rightly regarded the consultation exercise as a sham and the Government as having a pre-determined view.

The court may well take a similarly dim view.

What may save the Crown's blushes are its assurances that it will meet its Treaty obligations and discussion can take place on appropriate forms of recognition of water rights and redress - but only after the partial sale of Mighty River Power has been completed.

It is possible that the High Court could determine there be a compromise that would result in the Maori Council getting much of what they are seeking after the sale.

That would pose difficulties for National in selling such a compromise to its more conservative supporters. But it would save the privatisation programme.

The odds on the privatisation programme surviving must be at least 60:40 - probably even higher.

This week's initial High Court sitting was limited to setting a late November date for a substantive hearing. But should the court have been looking for precedent, it did not have to look very far.

Across the road at Parliament on the same day was a function marking the 20th anniversary of the Sealord fishing deal.

As Radio Waatea noted, this was effectively the first shares-plus Treaty settlement.

Not only that, it was a National Government which paid Maori $150 million to buy a half-share in New Zealand's largest fishing company after the Waitangi Tribunal's Muriwhenua Fisheries Report found that Maori fishing rights should be regarded as commercial following the introduction of the fish catch quota system in the 1980s.

The parallels are pretty obvious. And enough to make Key and National break out in a very cold sweat.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

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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