Today the Government meets Tainui leaders to begin a negotiation that ought to permit the partial privatisation of Mighty River Power. Tainui comes to the talks from two hui at Turangawaewae last week. The first, a hui for all comers summoned by King Tuheitia, urged iwi to put off negotiations until a pan-tribal group could be formed to present a united front to the Government on water rights. The second hui, of iwi leaders, agreed to no such thing.
The Iwi Chairs' Forum endorsed the call for unity in principle but, as the Weekend Herald revealed, the rest of the resolutions of the King's hui were not put to a vote of the iwi leaders for fear they would have been voted down. Clearly the water claim is not just an issue between Maori and the Government, it also reflects the tensions between tribal authority and populism within Maori politics.
The Government has been prepared to deal with iwi separately, not with pan-tribal entities such as the Maori Council. It would not send representatives to the King's hui last week and it is unlikely to engage with any group formed as a result of that gathering. But it may find the divisions evident between last week's hui are more apparent than real. While iwi chairmen would not be told what to do by a "people's hui", Tainui's negotiating hand will have been strengthened by it.
Tribal leaders will not want to reach any deal that could turn out to be less than the Maori Council might win if it goes to court with the ruling it obtained recently from the Waitangi Tribunal. The crucial discussion, therefore, will be one the Government has agreed to have with the council in response to the tribunal's ruling that provisions for Maori interests in water should be made before shares in Might River Power are put on sale.
The Government continues to insist that a sale of up to 49 per cent of the company would make no difference to its ability to settle iwi claims in every way but one - a "shares plus" scheme. That proposal is the only one the Government feels obliged to discuss before the float, while making it clear at the outset the proposal is not acceptable.
It was hard to see how that stance would survive judicial scrutiny under principles of good-faith establishing in Treaty jurisprudence, but the Government's initial letter to the council is now available and suggests it is treating the issue seriously.
The discussion, being led by Finance Minister Bill English, who has a good sense of Treaty principles, aims to take "shares plus" off thetable by finding alternative means to the sameend.
As the letter suggests, it is not in the national interest for any group of shareholders to be given special rights, as "shares plus" proposes. To give one group disproportionate influence over the company's management and strategic decisions would be unfair, impractical and unnecessary. It would deflect the company from commercial decisions, impair its performance for all shareholders (including the majority public stake) and is unlikely to be as effective as other means of expressing an iwi's interest in the water being used.
The letter offers plenty of possible solutions: a parcel of ordinary shares reserved for iwi that can establish a Treaty interest, a contract with the Crown as the majority owner, or the appointment of one or more Maori directors by the majority owner.
Today's talks with Tainui can pick up these suggestions too. With good faith on both sides, the float of the electricity companies can proceed to the benefit of all.
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