The stand-off between the National Government and support party the Maori Party hardened yesterday.
Prime Minister John Key repeated statements about the Waitangi Tribunal that have incensed Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia - that the Government does not need to listen to the tribunal's findings on the water claim.
And Mrs Turia accused him of giving people "permission" to attack Maori.
Mr Key told reporters in Christchurch that "it's just a statement of fact that the Waitangi Tribunal is not binding on this Government, in the way it wasn't binding on other Governments.
"It doesn't mean we won't listen to them. We might or we might not."
He also reiterated the Government view that no one owned water - the essence of the tribunal's inquiry is whether Maori have a proprietary interest in water.
Mrs Turia turned up to the Waiwhetu Marae in Lower Hutt yesterday in a black beret with a tino rangatiratanga patch on it.
Outside the hearing, at about the same time Mr Key was speaking, Mrs Turia accused Mr Key of undermining the tribunal and giving people "permission" to say damaging things about Maori, that she had heard on talkback.
She refused to say the support agreement for the National Government was safe and said that was in the hands of the membership.
She said everyone knew that the tribunal's recommendations were not binding.
"If we are going to start saying it is of no consequence, we don't have to listen to it, then I think that is undermining what the tribunal is all about.
"The tribunal is about hope. It's about belief that things can change, that things can be done to address the significant issues people face."
Mr Key's "dissing" the process just as it was beginning would make people lose hope.
Mrs Turia has requested a meeting with Mr Key but he has said he won't be able to make one this week. There would definitely be discussion "over the next few weeks", he said.
Co-leader Pita Sharples said on TV3's Firstline that he would rather stay at the table than walk away from Government.
Later he said public debate should focus on the issues in the Maori Council's claim - the mana of iwi and the legal status of tikanga Maori.
"The meaning of 'ownership' of natural resources needs to be debated."
Meanwhile Greens co-leader Russel Norman said the asset sales should not go ahead with so much uncertainty.
"Any investor with an ounce of sense is going to demand a hefty risk discount before investing in these companies with so much uncertainty swirling around their water rights."
- Additional reporting: Jarrod Booker
TRIBUNAL MEMBER: SELL SOLID ENERGY FIRST
A member of the Waitangi Tribunal yesterday suggested that the Government might be better off floating shares in the coal company Solid Energy before the three power companies.
Grant Phillipson posed the suggestion as a way to give the Government time to enter into negotiations with the Maori Council over the ownership of water.
Dr Phillipson is one of six tribunal members hearing an urgent claim by the council and 11 others for the recognition of Maori proprietary rights in water before the Government puts 49 per cent of five state-owned enterprises on the market, beginning with Mighty River Power.
Dr Phillipson suggested to one of the council expert witnesses, Steven Michener, yesterday that a delay might be best.
"If the priority for the Crown is to start making some money from selling shares and the priority for the claimants is to resolve water and the ownership of water is the solution perhaps to start the share sale with Solid Energy.
"And in the meantime the tribunal can complete its process and report and the claimants and the Crown perhaps can negotiate discussions with the Maori Council to further the issue of water," Dr Phillipson said.
Under the Government's timetable, the Mighty River Power float is due to be finished by the end of November. Its hydro and geothermal assets are centred around the central North Island and part of the Waikato River. The Government has not revealed the order of the sales beyond the first one.
Mr Michener, a consultant specialising in investment analysis and contractual negotiations for development projects, talked about the uncertainty of the Maori claims affecting the value of the shares. And Maori did not want uncertainty either. Yet investors, foreign and local, would be buying water-reliant assets "on the basis that the water costs nothing".
"This would then create pressure on the Crown to refrain from ultimately recognising the competing Maori proprietary interest in water after the private interests have acquired their shares."
Crown counsel Kieran Raftery suggested that "mum and dad" investors would be well aware from the publicity that there was some difficulty around the sale involving Maori.
Mr Michener said by nature "mum and dad' investors did not have a sophistIcated view and that they would be overwhelmed by the advertising campaign that lay ahead and what the Prime Minister had said. He rejected a suggestion that he was belittling "mum and dad" investors.