Government settles key Maori water claim ahead of Mighty River Power decision

The government has agreed a path to settling a major Maori water claim, relating to the Whanganui River, in the rohe or tribal area of the co-leader of the Maori Party, Tariana Turia.

BUSINESSDESK: The government has agreed a path to settling a major Maori water claim, relating to the Whanganui River, in the rohe or tribal area of the co-leader of the Maori Party, Tariana Turia.

The settlement, announced late yesterday by Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson, comes ahead of a Cabinet decision due next Monday on whether to proceed with the partial privatisation of Mighty River Power in face of a Waitangi Tribunal recommendation to halt the process while Maori claims to rights and interests in water are settled.

The Maori Council is expected to seek a High Court injunction blocking the sale if the government ignores the tribunal's recommendations.

It appears the government believes it would defeat such a court challenge because of the demonstrable progress being made to settle Maori claims to rights and interests in water.

The settlement of 139-year-old claims by Whanganui iwi would be a further string to that bow.

The framework agreement for settlement did not talk of "ownership" of the river by iwi, but rather recognised "the mana of the river from which the iwi's mana flows, and on its future health and well-being," says Finlayson, who described the Tutohu Whakatupua agreement as a "historic event".

While an Iwi Leaders Group on Freshwater has signalled it prefers negotiation with the government, the Maori Party has been caught again in the politics of appearing to compromise Maori interests for its coalition partner status Prime Minister John Key's National Party administration.

"Whanganui River iwi have sought to protect the river and have their interests acknowledged by the Crown through the legal system since 1873. They pursued this objective in one of New Zealand's longest running court cases.

"Today's agreement which recognises the status of the river as Te Awa Tupua [an integrated, living whole] and the inextricable relationship of iwi with the river is a major step towards the resolution of the historical grievances of Whanganui Iwi and is important nationally."

Elements of the detailed settlement, which has yet to be finalised, include the appointment of guardians for the river and agreement of a strategy for its management involving iwi, central and local government, commercial, recreational and other users of the river.

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