In the matter of Mighty River Power and Maori ownership rights to water, yesterday's action in the High Court - to quote Winston Churchill - is at least the end of the beginning of this saga, if not the beginning of the end.

It is some eight months since the Maori Council laid claims of Maori ownership and governance to the water used by state-owned hydro power stations in front of the Waitangi Tribunal. There is an awfully long way to go yet and any blanket declarations of victory are absurdly premature.

Whichever side comes out on top from next month's substantive High Court hearing of the Maori Council's challenge to the sale of 49 per cent of state-owned enterprise Mighty River Power, the other is likely to seek to overturn that court's ruling by going to the Court of Appeal and, if that fails, the Supreme Court.

Not surprisingly, the Maori Council and associated plaintiffs claimed victory yesterday after the High Court determined that there would be a full hearing on the issues raised by their challenge. It would have been surprising if Justice Ron Young had not granted the application.


National had long accepted that the Mighty River Power sale would end up in court. It was thus fairly predictable that once the court had flagged the holding of a substantive hearing that yesterday's Cabinet's meeting would decide to delay pushing through an order-in-council which would have transferred Mighty River Power from under the ambit of the State Owned Enterprises Act to the Public Finance (Mixed Ownership Model) Amendment Act.

Not to have done so would have been provocative and struck an ugly note in what was a mood for compromise over issues of process.

The threat of such an order-in-council - which would effectively have signalled National's partial asset sales programme was once again formally under way - had anyway done its job of flushing out the Maori Council to file papers with the High Court last Friday.

Without that threat, the Maori Council might have continued to delay going to the court, thereby jeopardising National's revised timetable for partial asset sales.

The pertinent question now is whether the time that will be taken up with next month's High Court hearing and subsequent appeals will prevent the Government meeting its deadline of next March for reigniting the partial privatisation programme.

Justice Young has accepted government pleas and expedited a hearing in the High Court as soon as practically possible. National will have its fingers crossed that higher levels of the judiciary will be equally accommodating.