An opportunistic grab for a handout or a principled stand for collective rights?
John Key will feel on safe political ground in rejecting the Maori Council’s water rights claim to the Waitangi Tribunal, portraying it directly as an "us and them", Maori vs the rest issue: "As [chairman] Maanu Paul said last night, the reason is they want you all to pay for that. He said you need to pay for their water" – see Danya Levy’s Key rejects Maori water claim in asset sales battle.
The claimants have a very different view, saying the privatisation of the assets has forced them to take action: "Mr Wihapi says Maori have been quite comfortable for years with the government and its agencies using natural resources for the benefit of the whole nation. But he says things have now become serious, because tribal property is set to be stolen" – see Radio NZ’s Hapu blames Govt for water rights claim.
While the tribunal and, almost inevitably, the courts will have to decide what rights actually exist, the underlying principle the Maori Council is arguing is the same as has been agreed on many previous claims. Resources that iwi gifted or allowed the state to use for the public good are reclaimed once the collective benefit ceases, and this has been the case with vast tracts of land used for schools, railways, roads and parks across the country.
That is a view shared by economist and treaty scholar Brian Easton: "If the government were to ignore those property rights, then I think there could well be the same sort of anger as occurred with the foreshore, that is they would see the government has privatised them" – see Janika ter Ellen’s Water claim could provoke anger – scholar
The government hasn’t ruled out buying back shares to settle claims but they are likely to be negotiated in secret with individual corporate iwi bodies on the condition that the sales are not impeded in any way. The Maori Council, in contrast, is openly challenging the unpopular sales because the public interest of all New Zealanders is being undermined.
Although a deal with the council is also possible, any legal delays could prove politically fatal to the sales, as it did to some in the 1980s. Anti-treaty sentiment may not be enough to overcome the many negatives the government faces.
There is another risk for the government, especially as John Key has been quick to say it will ignore any Waitangi Tribunal recommendation, irrespective of the outcome.
The Maori Party has already paid a heavy price for its association with National. To have their coalition partner dismiss the tribunal so easily will put further strain on the relationship and open them to further attacks from the opposition: "I think now is the time for the Maori Party to say 'if you are not even bothering listening, we are out'," says Mana Party leader Hone Harawira – see: Patrick Gower’s Asset sales decision not binding – Key
Other important or interesting political items today include:
* The modern National Party has lost the traditional balance that "natural social hierarchies" used to provide, argues Chris Trotter in Barbarians, risen without trace
Kiwi Rail job losses