The Maori Party's achievement in securing the retention of Section 9 of the State Owned Enterprises Act in legislation to govern the partial float of power companies should not be under-estimated. The party's three MPs threatened to end their partnership with the Government unless "a Treaty clause" appeared in the legislation. They have exceeded that goal.
The power companies will not be bound by something similar to Section 9; they will be subject to the self-same Section 9, which says, "nothing in this act shall permit the Crown to act in a manner that is inconsistent with principles of the Treaty of Waitangi".
The achievement belongs not only to the Maori Party but also to iwi representatives who attended hui around the country and made it clear to Government ministers that nothing less than the retention of Section 9 would do.
But it seems to be the fate of small parties to see their achievements either claimed by the governing party or discounted by those who immediately move the goalposts.
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As soon as the Government announced the retention of the Treaty obligation, some reports focused on the fact that only the Crown, not minority shareholders, would be bound by it. There was never a need for minorities to be bound. The Crown will retain at least 51 per cent of each company's shares. If one of the companies does anything that may be inconsistent with Treaty principles, it could be stopped by an action in the courts against its majority owner.
That was clearly the reason the Government was reluctant to apply Section 9 to partly privatised assets. The obligation on the Crown alone was considered capable of reducing the value of shares offered for sale.
John Key has the numbers to pass the asset sale legislation without the Maori Party's support and, despite his concession on Section 9, the sales are unlikely to receive its support. But Section 9 is a measure of how much he values its part in his Government.
There should be little doubt the Maori Party would have walked away for good on this issue. Until the Treaty was mentioned in the State Owned Enterprises Act 1986, it had no statutory force. Section 9 is as constitutionally important as the Treaty itself. It has opened a door for courts to recognise Maori interests in SOE land, mining rights and broadcasting and it has forced policy makers to clarify Treaty "principles" and give them effect.
To imagine Maori would stand by while the Crown sidled out of the obligation in certain circumstances was to hope they might not notice. In January someone did notice and the Maori Party made its ultimatum. Tariana Turia, writing in this newspaper on Waitangi Day, said: "There are times when you know the essence of all you believe in will be undermined by a particular action, and you have to make a stand. This is one of those times."
The Prime Minister had said he was looking for "an elegant solution". Undoubtedly he had something more "elegant" in mind than a complete concession but nothing less would have kept the Maori Party in his Government. It is easy to portray the outcome of political issues as a victory for one party and defeat for the other but as in the best of business deals, there are no losers in this one.
Maori have extended the Crown's Treaty obligation to partly privatised assets; the Government will find the stock sells well regardless. Private shareholders will have to come to terms with their Crown partner's Treaty obligation and the practical meaning of our founding agreement. Good faith on both sides is all that is needed to make it work. The resolution of Section 9 is another fine example.