PM's joke inflames dispute with Tuhoe

By Derek Cheng

Iwi claims Urewera ownership agreed before Key intervened at last minute

A comment by Prime Minister John Key that Tuhoe would have him for dinner has been labelled badly timed and insensitive by a Maori Party MP.

Speaking at a tourism event in Auckland, Mr Key made a joke about enjoying a dinner at a Ngati Porou marae on the East Coast this week.

"The good news is that I was having dinner with Ngati Porou as opposed to their neighbouring iwi, which is Tuhoe, in which case I would have been dinner, which wouldn't have been quite so attractive," he said.

The remark, which Mr Key's office called flippant and light-hearted, came three days after he announced Tuhoe would not be given Te Urewera National Park as part of a Treaty of Waitangi claim settlement.

This was despite the iwi understanding a settlement was ready to be signed after 18 months of negotiations.

Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell said Mr Key could be humorous when speaking publicly, and any suggestion his comment related to cannibalism - as some had suggested - might be off the mark, but it was still badly timed and not the best way to go about settling the situation.

Mr Key said he meant no offence. "It was a light-hearted joke, a bit of self-deprecating humour, but if anyone is offended, then I deeply apologise."

Tuhoe's chief negotiator, Tamati Kruger, said he understood the context and was not insulted, but thought the comment was unhelpful.

"In the bigger context, we should expect more from our Prime Minister."

Mr Kruger said authorities and groups with an interest in Te Urewera National Park were not opposed to Tuhoe ownership, which he claimed was further evidence that the Prime Minister had hijacked the negotiation process.

Tuhoe and the Crown recently held separate meetings with groups - from regional councils to boating clubs - to discuss the idea of Tuhoe ownership and address any concerns.

Mr Kruger said the support of the groups was further proof of Mr Key's last-minute intervention, leaving the negotiating teams embarrassed.

The groups were not against Tuhoe owning the park, as long as it was managed properly with public access, he said.

"[Mr Key] sullied everyone, including their team and our team.

"When he says that the Government finds this unacceptable, well, we didn't hear that from [Finance Minister Bill] English or [Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris] Finlayson."

Mr Finlayson's office said details of negotiations were confidential.

A spokesman for Mr Key said Tuhoe knew from the start that sole ownership was a tough ask. "There is no question we understood Tuhoe's preferred option and no question we understood how important that was to them, but Tuhoe have always been aware this was a difficult issue."

Forest and Bird general manager Mike Britton said he had stressed in the meetings the need for environmental protection.

"Ownership is not an issue for us. Our point of view is that we want to see the area protected and the level of statutory protection remain, and our understanding was that was possible."

A spokesman for Fish and Game said it had no objection to Tuhoe ownership as long as public access remained.

- additional reporting by NZPA

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