By Alex Tarrant
The Waitangi Tribunal will try to accommodate a government request for an earlier release of its views on how the partial sales of three state-owned power companies might affect Maori water rights claims under the Treaty of Waitangi.
But the Tribunal said it was "unusual and inappropriate" for the government to interfere in its deliberation process.
The government wanted to complete the partial sale of Mighty River Power before the end of the year, meaning it had to make a decision in the first week of September whether to go ahead with the sale, which could be no later than the first week of December, Finance Minister Bill English and SOE Minister Tony Ryall said last week.
That meant the government needed by August 24 the Tribunal's initial views on hearings held through July on whether the sales of Mighty River, Genesis and Meridian Energy would affect the government's ability to compensate Maori for water rights claims.
The Tribunal had initially said it would issue its report during September.
Prime Minister John Key said this morning that if the Mighty River IPO was delayed, the next window was in March/April next year.
That would cost the government money in terms of the interest it would have to pay on six months of extra borrowings, Key said on Monday afternoon.
"With regards to our request, I'm pleased to confirm the Waitangi Tribunal has today indicated it will endeavour to accommodate our request and deliver a truncated interim report by August 24. We appreciate the Tribunal's willingness to respond by that date," Key told media at his post-Cabinet press conference on Monday afternoon.
Getting a report back by August 24 would allow the government to incorporate the thoughts of the Waitangi Tribunal into the process the government was going through to determine the timing of the partial float of Mighty River Power, Key said.
"We gave an indication to the Tribunal that, if we didn't receive the information by August 24, that made a potential sale of those shares in 2012 more challenging for the government," he said.
"So it's great news that they are looking to accommodate our wishes, and we look forward to seeing their interim report and then factoring that in to the overall decisions that the government makes."
The government had held the view over the last three to four years that it needed to address the issue of water rights, Key said on Monday afternoon.
"We’ve been doing that in a variety of different forms – Land and Water Forum being one; the direct settlements and negotiations around rights and interests that we’ve had with Maori [being another]. And we’re very confident about our legal position and that we are following the right process," he said.
“We’re also mindful of the fact that it’s imminently possible that an action may be taken by someone and therefore we’d need to defend our position in court.
“We’re confident that we’ve followed the right and proper process," he said.
In terms of a potential injunction, Key said the government thought its position was "rock-solid."
The government had acted in good faith to recognise the rights and interests of Maori when it came to water, he said.
In the government's view, the capacity of Maori to register their rights or interests, or the government’s capacity to recognise those rights and interests, would not be influenced by a change in ownership of Mighty River Power.
“This is an argument not about whether Maori have rights and interests, but about whether the change in ownership alters their capacity to have those rights and interests acknowledged. We don’t believe there’s anything that alters [them if] we only own 51% of the company, not 100%.”
The Crown’s view was those rights and interests were correctly recorded and acknowledged though direct negotiation river by river, Iwi by Iwi.
“For the most part that hasn’t included shares, clearly, in the past, and that doesn’t seem likely to be the logical way of doing that to me, but it’s of course always possible," Key said when asked whether the government was looking to hold shares in the companies back for potential Treaty claims.
Some don't want pan-Iwi solution
Meanwhile, Key said there was a wide range of Iwi who had said they had no interest in a pan-Iwi solution to water rights claims. A number of Iwi leaders had publicly made comments directly to that point, he said.
“Their interest is about their particular river, and their particular rights and interests as they see it in relation to that river.”
His comments came after Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples said earlier on Monday that those present at a hui in Wellington had agreed there could be a national approach to the issue of water rights. See more here at Stuff.
Key and the Maori Party leadership are meeting this evening to discuss the water rights issue.