Whether you think the water claim to the Waitangi Tribunal by the New Zealand Maori Council is an audacious try-on or a legitimate test of legitimate rights, it is an issue that will make or break the reputations of many.

Most immediately, the Government's reputation as competent is at stake.

John Key's Cabinet has chosen to delay National's flagship policy of partial assets sales in the belief that conducting a consultation will put it on safer ground in any final judgment of the courts on a challenge by Maori.

It was cast as a win by both parties - the Maori Council forced a delay but the Crown changed nothing but the timing.


The longer-term verdict is very much open but there are two potential flashpoints for crisis - the Maori response and the court's response.

King Tuheitia is hosting a national hui at Turangawaewae next Thursday on the partial float of state-owned power companies, to be followed on Friday by a meeting at nearby Hopuhopu of the Iwi Chairs Forum, a grouping of 64 iwi from throughout the country from which the elite Iwi Leaders Group comes.

If Maoridom were to unite behind a single and reasonable response to the Waitangi Tribunal report and the Government unreasonably ignored it, it could develop into a crisis.

But the chances of that happening are slim to zero and the Government is banking on that.

The Government does not have a strategy of divide and rule.

As well as the tensions and agendas that go hand-in-hand with politics, difference exists as a matter of settlement evolution. The different rates and sizes of iwi settlements mean that the interests of Maori have diversified with time.

Some iwi have no settlements, some such as those based around the Whanganui River are well advanced in their settlement processes. And others have moved well beyond settlement. Ngai Tahu's settlement not only already covers freshwater issues but its interests over water range from guardianship to commercial with its large dairy holdings.

They don't need the Maori Council, which is reinventing itself as the voice of the forgotten hapu and iwi, a counter to the powerful Iwi Leaders Group.


The hui will be unified in the belief that they have proprietary rights in water but the problems come in determining not only how that should be recognised but on the processes to determine how it should be recognised.

The fact that the hui has been called by the Kingitanga says much about the ambition of King Tuheitia and his advisers to assert its traditional leadership role.

The hui will mark another chapter in the remarkable career of Tukoroirangi Morgan. Having been dumped from the Waikato Tainui executive, he is now not only the King's spokesman but is his nominee on the Iwi Leaders Group - alongside Waikato-Tainui's Tom Roa - and will chair the hui.

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples has been somewhat sidelined in the process, having gone from a brokering role between the Maori Council and the Iwi Leaders Group to more of bystander.

The party is variously the subject of condemnation and praise of the Maori Council, depending on which council chairman or which spokesman is speaking.

The machinations of the Maori Council have the makings of an opera, though it is not clear whether it is a tragedy, farce or a heroic tale of happy ever after. That a former High Court Judge, Sir Edward Taihakurei Durie, has taken on a highly political role as head of the council runs counter to the principle of an independent judiciary but appears not to have raised an eyelid. Sir Eddie is expected to play a prominent role, in the hui, probably talking up the merits of a legal challenge in the courts.

Contrary to many reports it will not be the first national hui in 30 years. Tuwharetoa have often done so to rally iwi on important issues.

Quite apart from foreshore and seabed hui, the late Tuwharetoa chief Sir Hepi te Heuheu called a national hui in 1995 to discuss the fiscal envelope proposed by Sir Douglas Graham and Jim Bolger.

The 1000 tribal representatives there passed a resolution opposing the policy aimed at settling all historical treaty grievances with $1 billion over 10 years.

The current Tuwharetoa paramount chief, Sir Tumu te Heuheu, might have been expected to call the national hui on water seeing he is the leader of the Freshwater Iwi Leaders with whom the Government has been discussing water issues since 2007 and which is an integral part of the Land and Water Forum which is formulating allocation policy.

But the chief is facing his own pressures.

From time to time there are rumours that Tuwharetoa could take High Court action to claim a water rental from Mighty River Power based on its undisputed ownership to the bed of Lake Taupo.

Te Heuheu's preference is to negotiate, both for his iwi and in the water group.

His statement two weeks ago to that effect was held up as an example by Key of a more sensible approach. But it has also had led to rumblings as to whether te Heuheu was acting as a representative of the iwi leaders or of Tuwharetoa.

He issued a statement on Thursday night to clarify that "the Iwi Leaders Group has never sought to usurp the right of individual groups to progress their issues in whatever forum they choose".

He will play a prominent role in the hui and is likely to promote the course of continued negotiation in order to be part of a new framework to be developed around water management.

The second potential flashpoint on this issue is if it gets to court and to the Supreme Court in particular.

Chief Justice Sian Elias would then have to make a decision to step aside from any decision because of conflicts of interest or not. Her specialty before she joined the bench was in Treaty litigation.

A decision by the court to stop the Government's flagship SOE programme would be the ultimate flashpoint.

It would probably force John Key to put his Government on the line and force an early election - the ultimate test in reputation.