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Herald on Sunday editorial: Time running out on claims

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Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Most people were surprised when the Government postponed the part-privatisation of Mighty River Power after a Waitangi Tribunal decision. Not a few were also dismayed. Having expected the Prime Minister to plough ahead with the sales programme, they were left to ask who was actually running the country.

Worryingly, that perspective is gaining ever-widening currency, so much so that there is now good cause to consider whether a line on all Maori claims must soon be drawn in the sand.

That is not a novel notion. All the main political parties have planned to impose a time limit on the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process. They have varied only in the timing of that deadline and the caveats attached to it. Even the Maori Party has chimed in. Claims had been used by politicians to "bring Maori into contempt and ridicule by branding the process a gravy train," said co-leader Pita Sharples in 2005. "It is, therefore, in the country's best interests that the claims be settled as fast as possible to remove this negativeness."

Helen Clark agreed. She sought to accelerate the process by dealing more directly with claimants. Negotiations were undertaken in tandem with the work of the Waitangi Tribunal, rather than evolving from it. John Key has been equally keen to curtail matters. Early in his prime ministership, he took the chair of a Cabinet committee dedicated to the settlements and made more money available to accelerate them. The aim was to settle all historical claims by 2014.

In terms of that, this week's Tuhoe settlement was a promising sign. But the best intentions have too often been undone by what we are constantly told is the complexity of the process. In addition, there now seems to be never-ending requests to the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate contemporary claims relating to any act, practice or policy by the Crown after September 21, 1992, that allegedly breaches the Treaty. The thorny issue of Maori rights to rivers, lakes and aquifers is but one of more than 200 of these.

New Zealanders have, by and large, never resented the principle of compensation for wrongs. But as the process has dragged on, they have become increasingly agitated over the taxpayer funding associated with it. Now, that gravy-train annoyance has advanced to another plane. Many people feel the flood of Maori claims is engendering only divisiveness, and that the time has come to move on as a country.

In that context, the row over Maori water rights is shaping to be even more contentious than that over the foreshore and seabed. As much was underlined by this week's national hui, which resolved to fund a Maori Council challenge to the Mighty River part-sale unless the Government settled issues of proprietary rights over water before the share float. Maori resolve was also reflected in King Tuheitia's declaration that "we have always owned the water".

There must be a debate over whether Maori, in the 21st century, are entitled to a share of the profits of commercial exploitation of the resources they call taonga. Questions about the right to what is and always was theirs and was promised in the Treaty cannot be brushed aside. But, equally, that discussion cannot ignore prevailing opinion.

This country has, arguably, gone further than any other in its pursuit of truth and reconciliation. This was always about more than money, and the process has undoubtedly benefited Maori in terms of status, recognition and pride. But as long ago as 2005, Helen Clark declared that "the time has come to seek finality". That sentiment has gathered ever-increasing momentum in the years since. It is time for Maori leaders to acknowledge as much.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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