The Maori Party has shocked some of its core supporters by proposing a private member's bill that vests ownership of the foreshore and seabed in the Crown, instead of in Maori.

Labour MPs have scorned the bill and say the party's rhetoric has not matched its deeds in Parliament.

The intention of the bill of Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia is to create the legal position that existed after the landmark Court of Appeal judgment in June 2003.

She wants Maori to be again able to pursue claims to the foreshore and seabed through the courts.

She disputes claims that the party said its position was to vest ownership of the foreshore and seabed in Maori.

"We only ever said that we would repeal [the act], and that is our intention. I am absolutely sure that tangata whenua know that our job is to overturn the legislation."

She said she had no intention of conducting a running debate on the pros and cons of her private member's bill with Labour MPs.

"We are engaged and speaking about this bill to a number of parties and we will not be conducting those discussions in the media."

Maori Party MP Hone Harawira said before being elected last year that the Maori Party policy was to vest the foreshore "in Maori title".

And while Mrs Turia may not have used that term, she described it as "the last piece of customary land that is still in customary ownership" and a property right of Maori that was being "confiscated by the Crown".

It is not yet known whether the bill has enough support to get to select committee. That will depend on getting National and United Future to support it and neither has yet decided.

Mrs Turia left the Labour Party over its response to the Court of Appeal judgment - which had opened up the possibility of Maori claiming freehold title through the Maori Land Court over their customary foreshore and seabed areas.

Labour's Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 shut that down. It also shut down the possibility of Maori claiming common law customary title through the High Court - a right which had never been tested in a New Zealand court.

The act vested ownership of the foreshore and seabed in the Crown, set up a new regime for Maori to register customary rights orders in their area through the Maori Land Court, and replaced the ability of iwi to claim customary title through the courts with a process of negotiated settlement for "territorial customary rights".

The eastern tribe of Ngati Porou is engaged in such negotiations.

Mrs Turia's private member's bill was drawn from the ballot in October but the text became available only last week and has caused ripples throughout Maoridom.

One prominent Maori Party supporter, who did not want to be named, said many people had felt "let down" by the bill and believed it would affect support for the party at flax-roots level.

The Maori Party had formed around that issue and it would have been better to stick to a principled position and lose than compromise principles in the hope of attracting more conservative parties.

It is thought that while the Turia bill repeals the existing act, which already vests ownership in the Crown, the repeal bill could not technically replicate the uncertain legal position after the Court of Appeal judgment stipulated that it was vested in the Crown.

Labour list MP Shane Jones said the bill showed "the vast difference between their electoral rhetoric and the sheer graft required to find a solution in this really difficult and divisive issue".

"It's a cocktail of custom, politics and law and although the Maori Party promised to deliver back to the iwi their ownership of seabed ... their first statutory attempt - and it will undoubtedly be their last - has the perverse outcome of giving it to the Crown.

"Whatever contortions they get themselves into, they will never ever be able to explain to the satisfaction of Maori as to why they have taken this course of action."

Mr Jones said the Maori Fisheries Commission - which he chaired - had spent nearly $2 million funding legal actions to establish the nature of the Maori proprietorial interest in the seabed and foreshore.

"This bill makes no attempt to recognise that interest. All it does is it kicks for touch and gives the land and title back to the Crown, presumably to create a platform for another 35 years worth of claims against the Crown for the seabed and foreshore of New Zealand."

The legislation

* Tariana Turia wants to create the legal position that existed as a result of a Court of Appeal judgment in June 2003.

* This would have allowed Maori to pursue claims to the foreshore and seabed through the courts.

* Labour's law shut down that possibility and led to mass protests and was a driving force behind the formation of the Maori Party.