An unidentifiable voice coming from the Government benches summed up question time in Parliament yesterday afternoon: what happened to the big hit from the Opposition?

What indeed - especially given this was the first day the House had met since the wrangling between the Government and Maori over water rights and the partial sale of state-owned Mighty River Power had put the Maori Party's attachment to National as a support partner at risk.

Labour leader David Shearer had upped the ante earlier in the day by saying that the sales process was now variously a "complete shambles" and a "complete train wreck".

At least Labour tried, however. Green co-leaders Metiria Turei and Russel Norman were absent, as was Mana's Hone Harawira. New Zealand First confined itself to a couple of enigmatic questions from Winston Peters.


Shearer said the threat of legal action over water rights would affect Mighty River's float price.

John Key and State Owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall countered that the current Waitangi Tribunal hearing had had no material effect on current share prices.

The Prime Minister had something up his sleeve - yesterday's release of the rewrite of Labour's rules which will see the election of the party's leader widened to ordinary party members and trade union affiliates, rather than being solely the prerogative of the parliamentary caucus.

"No wonder David Cunliffe is not here. He is out with the unions," John Key thundered briefly at Shearer's expense.

It might have been a rather lame joke, but given National seems to have been left politically legless over water rights, Key's colleagues treated his brief foray on the offensive as if it was one of the the funniest things they had ever heard.

The afternoon's proceedings confirmed one thing. Labour may oppose state asset sales. It can call on the Maori Party to stop propping up the Government. But on the question of whether Maori have ownership rights to water, Labour's need to appeal both to Maori voters as well as mainstream, conservative-minded Pakeha ones makes things as tricky for that party as it does for a National Government. Perhaps more so.