John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: For dignity's sake Key won't budge on sales

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Wayne Drought
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Wayne Drought

Negotiation, not legislation, will be National Party's preference.

The messy and unedifying stoush between National and the Maori Council is now as much about the Government's right to exercise power as it is about Maori rights over water.

As far as National is concerned, the wrangle increasingly boils down to the unacceptability of its general election-derived mandate to govern being both sabotaged and subverted.

National clearly believes that to be happening, although it's not shouting so from the rooftops.

To do so would only play to the Maori Council's advantage by making National look weak. While the tight timetable for partial asset sales would seem to place some short-term imperatives on the Government, ministers are taking things step by step, acutely conscious that short-circuiting the council's game plan - such as via legislation overruling the courts - could prove to be vastly counterproductive.

The Maori Council is, of course, perfectly entitled to go to the Waitangi Tribunal to seek a ruling on water rights and the question of ownership.

The timing and accompanying extraneous motives which have nothing to do with water rights are another matter altogether.

It beggars belief that National would (or even should) be expected to twiddle its thumbs while watching the courts being employed as political instruments to try to derail its flagship second-term policy.

Well may the opponents of the partial asset sales programme rejoice in the council's crude attempt to hold a gun at National's head and force a delay in the partial privatisation of the three state-owned electricity generators, Mighty River Power, Meridian and Genesis energy.

Those self-same critics of privatisation would be the first to squeal were Maori to go to court to stymie one of their landmark policies.

Labour certainly would not tolerate it. To their credit, the likes of David Shearer and Shane Jones possess the foresight to recognise that employing one volatile issue to inflame another is the political equivalent of sniffing petrol.

The shock-horror reaction to John Key's terse reminder that the tribunal's rulings are not binding on the Government served only to show how things have got so thoroughly out of kilter. Key was merely reassuring National's natural constituency that the party is not going to bow and scrape to Maoridom's every wish.

National is holding its annual conference this weekend. Had Key not uttered what was a pretty mild denunciation of the Maori Council, there would have been a long line of conference delegates offering him the wisdom of their opinions.

Key's accusing the council of "opportunism" is a universe away from some Don Brash-inspired Orewa Mark II play of the race card.

Key's ratings as preferred prime minister remain sufficiently healthy to render pointless any resort to such desperate tactics. Key, anyway, does not share Brash's outdated Eurocentric view of the world. Key is simply not that kind of leader. He's as comfortable with taniwhas as he is with trade-weighted exchange rates.

Moreover, in Chris Finlayson, National has a Treaty Negotiations Minister who has shown the same degree of sympathy to past injustices as Doug Graham in the 1990s and worked just as hard as his trail-blazing predecessor to hammer out fair and durable settlements, but with considerably less fanfare.

That said, no Government worthy of the name is going to allow itself to be treated as a soft touch.

That's why some in Maoridom fear the Maori Council has made a huge strategic mistake in confronting National head-on.

When it comes to its partial asset sales programme, National - for the sake of its own political dignity - cannot and will not give ground.

The split within Maoridom between the Maori Council and the Iwi Leaders Group, which favours negotiation, has allowed National to play divide and rule.

The prime victim of the Maori Council's short-sightedness is the Maori Party, whose loyalties are being pulled in every direction.

Once again, Tariana Turia made the noises and gestures to intimate that this time the Maori Party perhaps might follow through and pull the plug on its support agreement with National.

Once again, the looming prospect of the futility and irrelevancy of Opposition made plain old humiliation more preferable.

That equation, and the Prime Minister's successful efforts to downplay that anything out of the ordinary was happening, meant there was no real sense of crisis.

Wednesday night's meeting between the National and Maori Party leadership accordingly gave the latter the required bone in the form of an assurance from National that it will not legislate to overrule the courts.

It wasn't much of a concession. National - having observed the difficulties Labour made for itself in legislating a solution to the foreshore and seabed schemozzle - has no desire to go down that fraught route.

Far more important for National - and largely ignored - was the meeting's determination that both parties continue to support negotiation between iwi and hapu and the Government on the former's rights and interests in water.

Alongside a wide-ranging review of water policy being conducted by a quasi-Government body, the Land and Water Forum, negotiation is National's preferred means of dealing with the question of rights.

The Maori Council's crude attempt to impose a pan-Maori solution was largely ignored in the joint statement after the meeting. The two parties simply agreed to discuss the tribunal's findings. There was nothing in the statement to delay the asset sales in the interim.

No one in National is under any illusion that the tribunal's report will do anything else but come down heavily on the Maori Council's side of the argument - and that will be the spur for the council or someone else to seek an injunction to halt the float of shares in Mighty River Power, the first state-owned enterprise to go on the block.

Ministers are confident, however, that the Government's present efforts to clarify rights over water will make it much more difficult for the High Court to grant an injunction.

Things have advanced considerably since the 1980s when litigation by the Maori Council was both justified and successful.

The progress made since then was underlined by Finlayson during Thursday morning's special sitting of Parliament to pass legislation enacting a handful of smaller Treaty settlements.

He noted that the unanimous support across Parliament given to passage of the respective bills illustrated that regardless of who was in Government, Treaty settlements negotiated in good faith were the "right way" to address claims.

He didn't say what was the wrong way. He didn't need to.

- NZ Herald

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