By RUTH BERRY political reporter

The Government wants Maori to give up their claims to exclusive foreshore and seabed ownership in exchange for potentially lucrative marine farming rights.

It is also still examining whether compensation might also be offered.

But ministers are trying to keep a tight lid on negotiations being held over the issue, which appears to have become a focal point for mounting Maori dissatisfaction over the Government's handling of the treaty relationship.


The issue is so sensitive that Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen went on the warpath last week, mistakenly believing a Government paper on the subject discussed at a meeting on Wednesday, had been leaked to the Herald.

Officials and the Government's Maori MPs have been firmly told to keep their mouths shut, lest "the process" be jeopardised.

One source said that the Government had already prepared draft legislation on the foreshore and seabed issue, which included references to reservation of aquaculture space for iwi.

The plans said iwi would retain customary rights around the foreshore and seabed, but the Maori Land Court would not be able to award them any exclusive title.

It is not known whether compensation might yet be awarded in the draft.

The source said the proposal contained nothing attractive for Maori.

But a spokeswoman for Treaty Negotiations Minister Margaret Wilson rejected talk of draft legislation as ridiculous, saying discussions were still at a very preliminary stage and nothing definitive was on the table.

The original foreshore and seabeds case was sparked by concerns among iwi at the top of the South Island that they were being shut out of the burgeoning marine farming industry in Marlborough.

Their assertion of customary title arose out of anger that the Government was reaping the financial benefit from the tendering of marine space.

Separate negotiations between iwi and the Government have not resolved disagreements on aquaculture legislation which Fisheries Minister Pete Hodgson wants introduced next month, so it can become law before the moratorium on tenders for new farms is lifted in March.

A Waitangi Tribunal report last year recommended iwi get access to at least 20 per cent of new aquaculture marine areas.

The Government earlier pushed for an "intervention clause' in the aquaculture legislation, which would allow it to defer negotiations on at least some iwi issues.

Iwi were unhappy with this, and the Government's assertion that it will not recognise exclusive iwi title to the foreshore and seabed has caused further aggravation.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has suggested the Government may now try to resolve these issues, and even others around the Marine Reserves Bill, in one hit.

"There's enormous interest in the aquaculture legislation ... and the Court of Appeal [foreshore and seabeds] decision in a sense brings these issues around those bills to the fore and I think we may be able to resolve a number of things together," she said on Mana News.

Whanganui River activist Ken Mair, who met ministers on Monday, said he had heard talk of "money for mana", but said Maori would never agree to loss of their title to the foreshore and seabed.

The Hauraki Maori Trust Board is expecting 700 to 1000 people to attend a hui being held on the issue in Paeroa next Saturday.

Spokesman John McEnteer said Hauraki would never agree to the foreshore and seabed property right being extinguished.

The hui would also address the growing concern over the relationship between the treaty partners as Maori were increasingly of the view "the Government isn't dealing with things very well at all".

Margaret Wilson is likely to be confronted on these issues when she attends another hui, called to discuss the proposed Supreme Court, in Taupo in two weeks.

Maori are still divided on the issue.

Story so far

* Tribes at the top of the South Island won the right to make a legal case claiming customary ownership of the Marlborough seabed and foreshore (the land between high and low water).

* If the case had succeeded, other similar claims on coastline could have followed.

* Helen Clark said her Government would change the law to prevent the court challenge.

* Two days later, she backed away from this, saying there were "a whole range of possibilities".