Unless the Maori Party and the Government agree on what ownership means, its concession in the joint statement is meaningless.The agreement between National and the Maori Party this week over ownership of water has restored a sense of stability to the Government, for now.

The Maori Party's refusal to reconfirm its support for the minority National Government last week and its promise to discuss its support with members prompted legitimate speculation that the Government might not last the full three years.

The meeting and agreement reached in the Beehive on Wednesday night have settled the waters. Labour's disappointment was palpable yesterday.

Both National and the Maori Party can claim wins of sorts from the July 18 joint water statement by Prime Minister John Key and Maori Party co-leaders Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples.


National wanted the Maori Party to say the water issue is not about ownership.

And the Maori Party wanted National to say it would not legislate over Maori rights and interests in water.

For the general constituency National has been able to reassert its management skills and for the more liberal constituency it has emphasised the work it has been doing for years on water rights.

Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson attended the meeting fresh from an appearance at the Maori Affairs select committee where Labour MPs openly praised him and thanked him for his leadership in his portfolio.

But the concessions reached on Wednesday raise as many questions as they answer.

What is meant by ownership that allows the Maori Party to so easily eschew it when in recent years it has called for a debate on the ownership of water?

When the Maori Party says it is about protecting rights, not about ownership, it can do so sincere in the knowledge that it is not intending to mean concepts such as a deed of title for water or the ability to sell it.

Unless the Maori Party and the Government agree on what ownership means, its concession in the joint statement is meaningless.


And whatever agreements they reach, they have no control over other Maori to claim ownership rights over specific waters and have the courts uphold them.

And unless the Maori Party and the Government are in agreement about the rights and interests that hapu and iwi have in water, the Government's pledge "not to legislate over those rights and interests" is meaningless.

Does it mean just the rights agreed upon thus far or future ones that could be upheld by a court? In separate interviews yesterday, Mr Key and Finance Minister Bill English sought to avoid questions about what they would do if a future court upheld a future claim for a proprietary interest in water.

Eventually Mr English said they would not legislate but negotiate but Mr Key said it was theoretically possible to legislate to clarify that no one owned the water.

Already there are ripples on the calm waters.