John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Timing is everything in asset sales plan

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Photo / Supplied

The many critics of National's troubled privatisation programme may be more than a little premature in celebrating a possible delay in the first share float.

Well may they rejoice at the seemingly huge spanner thrown into the implementation of the partial asset sales policy by the Maori Council's claim of ownership rights to water and geothermal resources.

But in their joy, those critics seem to have forgotten something. That "something" is the simple fact that any Government worthy of the name does not sit around twiddling its thumbs while the flagship policy of its second term in power is going down the gurgler. Certainly not a National Party Government.

Much attention has been devoted to the Waitangi Tribunal's hearing of the Maori Council-instigated claim of ownership rights to water.

There has been much less focus on the huge amount of effort being expended by Government ministers behind the scenes to keep National's partial asset sales policy on track and on time.

This applies particularly to the preparation of material to counter what seems to be an inevitable attempt by the Maori Council to injunct the float of Mighty River Power once the Waitangi Tribunal has - as seems likely - ruled in the council's favour.

No defence is being left unturned as the Government seeks more ballast for what it believes is already a strong Crown argument against halting the share floats until questions of water rights and ownership have been resolved.

Apart from stressing the work of the Land and Water Forum in finding consensus on longer-term questions involving the resource, the Government's counsel will point to the many iwi for whom the matter has already been resolved through negotiation with the Crown.

Significantly, some iwi may weigh in behind the Crown's case by giving evidence or submitting affidavits in its favour. The Crown will probably argue that the pan-Maori finding sought by the Maori Council is anachronistic and completely out of touch with what is already happening.

But it is all very much a case of softly, softly catchee monkey. Although ministers are keeping their fingers firmly crossed, they believe that in the end National will get itself out of this hole - and just as crucially, the timetable for the sale of minority shareholdings in four state-owned enterprises will remain intact.

This requires ministers to anticipate adverse developments so they are ready to counter them. That was evident this week in the Government's reaction to Monday's less-than-surprising memorandum from the Waitangi Tribunal on the state of play regarding the Maori Council claim.

You did not need to be a clairvoyant to work out in which direction the tribunal's six-member panel was heading.

The 13-page memorandum summarised what the tribunal saw as the salient points of submissions at last month's hearing - thereby giving a fair idea of its likely recommendations in its final report.

The memorandum's immediate purpose, however, was to get the Government to agree it would not proceed with the minority share float in Mighty River Power before the tribunal had the time to report fully and properly.

This left the Government in an awkward position. It could overrule what seemed to be a reasonable and sensible request from a quasi-judicial body, thereby incensing many in Maoridom and leaving its Maori Party ally further embarrassed and marginalised.

Or it could find itself sucked further into a process from which there would be only one outcome - delay of the Mighty River Power float.

The first indication that National was not going to allow itself to be hijacked by the tribunal came in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon when State Owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall declared that while a delay in the partial sale of Mighty River Power could not be ruled out, Cabinet ministers were "considering how we can incorporate the tribunal's processes within the broad time line we are working towards."

The significance of this innocuous-sounding statement was easily missed. Exactly what it meant was spelled out the next day with the announcement the Government was effectively imposing a three-week deadline for receipt of the tribunal's "recommendations and reasoning".

If the tribunal did not meet the deadline, too bad. The Government would be making its decision on proceeding with the Mighty River Power float in the first week of next month "on the basis of all the information available to us at that time".

In telling the tribunal that the Government was following its own timetable, ministers revealed why they were in such a rush.

The law covering share floats decrees that these take place within a period coinciding with publication of the relevant company's full-year or half-year results.

That limits the "windows" for share floats to two a year. Delaying a decision on Mighty River Power beyond the first week of September would mean losing the last window of this year.

Running two floats at once next year to catch up is seen as unmanageable and counter-productive to attracting the small investors National hopes will literally buy into the privatisation policy.

The flow-on effect of delay would result in National conducting the final scheduled float close to the 2014 election instead of much earlier in the year.

Then there is the fiscal consideration. The Government has already "booked" the asset sale proceeds in the Government accounts for spending on "feel good" things such as schools and hospitals, and delay would leave a large hole in those accounts which would mean one of two things - more borrowing or deferment of capital projects.

It is likely that there is an element of bluff in the Government's strategy. While it insists a decision must be made on the Mighty River Power float by early next month, its timetable is understood to contain some leeway for subsequent court hearings.

There is also lingering hope within the Government that the Waitangi Tribunal might yet come to its senses and produce "pragmatic" findings which give everyone room for negotiation on water rights without derailing asset sales.

At least dreams are still free, even if increasingly water isn't.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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