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Prime Minister Helen Clark and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters today rejected any suggestion they had done a deal on the foreshore and seabed.

The Government now appears likely to legislate to vest the seabed and foreshore in Crown ownership, a proposal that has been winning support from some in Labour's Maori caucus.

The Government had previously proposed the foreshore and seabed go into the "public domain", meaning no one owned it but everyone had access to it.

Moves toward Crown ownership firmed up after a meeting between Mr Peters and Miss Clark on Monday.

They discussed the legislation, and a proposed inquiry into the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in modern society.

While New Zealand First supports Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed, Miss Clark told National Radio today the two issues were separate.

Any change of direction by the Government on the foreshore could not be linked with Mr Peters backing the inquiry.

Mr Peters confirmed that, but said he would not support the foreshore and seabed legislation, unless there was Crown ownership.

"What it is, is a clear articulation of various circumstances to do with two different issues," Mr Peters said.

"Whilst they look the same they are not. It's not a matter of having a price to pay, what I've set out is what I've said for 16 long years in this country, year after year."

He has said he would support the inquiry, but wants consultation on terms of reference and who carries it out.

The Government was unlikely to have required New Zealand First support to pass the foreshore and seabed legislation, despite disquiet in its Maori caucus.

With Mr Peters support for Crown ownership of the seabed and foreshore, the Government would not need all the votes of its Maori MPs to get the legislation passed.

Miss Clark said Maori MPs understood the relationship of Maori with the Crown.

"For my part I've always thought the concept of the people of New Zealand (public domain) was an inclusive one, but they find that less easy to grasp than the concept of Crown ownership, so there has been discussion around that."

The Maori caucus last night held one of its regular meetings with Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen, who has been charged with sorting out the Government's seabed and foreshore policy.

After the meeting, Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia said it was "more probable than not" that Crown ownership would be the Government's preferred option "as that's the treaty partner".

Mr Horomia said different issues were being discussed but "certainly there's support for it" (Crown ownership) within the Maori caucus.

"... we're trying to sort out some of the detail around that and a whole lot of other things like the test in relation to customary rights and all those other issues."

Asked whether she would vote for a bill with Crown ownership, Labour MP Georgina Beyer said: "It would certainly satisfy my constituents. The answer is yes."

Mr Horomia told reporters no deal with the NZ First leader had been done, as did Dr Cullen.

Associate Maori Affairs Minister Tariana Turia has already said she would abstain on voting on the seabed legislation.

Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta told NewstalkZB today she would cross the floor on the issue to reflect her electorate's concerns.

Tainui wanted the opportunity to explore the full extent of their customary rights, she said.

Mr Peters said NZ First was concerned that a royal commission should address which version of the treaty was official.

One of its terms of reference should be a provision that ensured all laws applied to all New Zealanders and not one specific ethnic group.

"Our support for the concept of the commission is dependent on the acceptance of the above," Mr Peters said.

His party also wanted input into the terms of reference and the selection of commissioners.

A spokesman said Miss Clark had asked Mr Peters, United Future leader Peter Dunne and the Greens to her office separately to discuss ways to progress an inquiry into treaty issues.

Mr Peters had raised the issue of Crown ownership of the seabed and foreshore.

National Party leader Don Brash sparked the treaty debate after his Orewa speech which called for an end to preferential treatment for Maori, and saw National rise in the polls.

For the Government to now legislate for Crown ownership of the seabed and foreshore would be "the most remarkable of U-turns" from Miss Clark, Dr Brash said.

New Zealand First had also done a U-turn, as it had initially opposed the treaty inquiry, he said.

Dr Brash said National was pleased with prospect of the foreshore and seabed going inbto Crown ownership, as that was what it had always wanted.

- NZPA

Herald Feature: Maori issues

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