Barry Soper is Newstalk ZB's Political Editor

Barry Soper: Whanganui River's personhood a strange proposition

Whanganui River has all the rights of a person under a Treaty of Waitangi settlement passed into law today. Photo / File
Whanganui River has all the rights of a person under a Treaty of Waitangi settlement passed into law today. Photo / File

As lawmakers, politicians can virtually do anything, and they have done what to many is incomprehensible - they've turned Whanganui River into a person.

No, they hadn't had a long session in Bellamys. They were stone cold sober as they gave the river it's own legal identity "with all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person".

The person who could probably now be described then as the river's dad (Chris Finlayson's bill did give the river its human status) says it recognises the deep spiritual connection between the Whanganui iwi and its ancestral river.

And no, the river won't be a drain on the Superannuation Fund even though, given its advanced age, it'd well and truly qualify for the pension. In fact it'll be a very wealthy pensioner, being in charge of a $30 million contestable fund, which is there to "further its health and well-being".

And to change its status from a natural resource to a person, $1m is being put up for legal expenses.

For the acerbic Finlayson it's no laughing matter. In all seriousness, he said it gives the river the ability to represent itself, and clearly not as a babbling brook. Human representatives, he says, will argue on its behalf.

Finlayson does acknowledge that "the initial inclination of some people will say it's pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality". He could say that again, and he did on several occasions, which still left many of us scratching our heads. He says it's really no different to family trusts, companies, or incorporated societies.

One of those who seemed to be flummoxed by the river becoming a person was Acting Prime Minister Paula Bennett, who herself has Maori blood coursing through her tributaries. It was as though her bubble had finally burst though when she was asked about the river's new status.

Prime Ministers are meant to know everything. John Key always did, answering everything that was thrown at him and Bill English is making a fair fist of it as well. But a river being a person was a strange proposition for Bennett, who followed the lead of her predecessors though and babbled away about our connection to the waterways before finally admitting defeat - she didn't quite understand what a river being a person meant.

In fairness to Bennett, Key during the dirty politics saga, always seemed confused on whether he was a person rather than an office, so there is a precedent.

• Barry Soper is the Political Editor for Newstalk ZB

- Newstalk ZB

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