By Pattrick Smellie
Prime Minister John Key is struggling to articulate his claim that Maori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi can be preserved under its plans to partially privatise electricity and coal companies.
With the Maori Party threatening its confidence and supply agreement with the government over the issue, Key spent much of today’s post-Cabinet press conference trying to allay fears about preservation of Treaty rights over both disputed land claims and wider consultation obligations.
“There is no reduction in the Crown’s obligation under the Treaty,” said Key, although law changes would be required to remove the targeted state-owned enterprises’ obligations to consult with Maori on Treaty issues under Section 9 of the 1996 SOE Act. The change was necessary because it couldn’t bind private investors.
However, the existing obligation would remain with the government, as both the majority shareholder in the partially privatised assets, and because the Treaty of Waitangi only has binding effect on the government.
Maori claims under the Treaty relating to specific assets would also be preserved through memorials on the title of disputed land, as happened in the past when other state assets were privatised in the 1990’s, including Contact Energy and Petrocorp.
“You can’t put a Treaty clause on private sector shareholders,” said Key. “Therefore, we need to find a way to continue what it (Section 9) intends to do.”
He suggested reports of a split with the Maori Party were “getting ahead of themselves”, although Finance Minister Bill English met with the Maori Party leadership this afternoon in an effort to assuage concerns about an issue that looks likely to dominate next Monday’s Waitangi Day festivities.
The Waitangi Treaty House grounds are a traditional venue for protest, in a part of the country that is a stronghold for Hone Harawira, the only MP for the Mana Party, which he formed when he broke with the Maori Party before last year’s election.
Key said he expected the issue would be “a topic of conversation” at Waitangi, but that he didn’t expect it to be a “deal-breaker”.
He was “extremely confident the Maori Party will remain part of the government over the next three years,” and that an “elegant solution” could be found to meet Maori concerns while allowing the sale of a minority stake in electricity companies MightyRiverPower, Meridian Energy, and Genesis Energy to ahead.
However, in comment supplied to BusinessDesk, Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples said there was no assurance of similar Treaty protections continuing.
"We are saying: don't tamper with Section 9. It has to stay with its full force, without modification."
Co-leader Tariana Turia said the issue was as important as the foreshore and seabed. "If it comes down to the wire, we would have to consider our position. We would speak to iwi, and our constituents, and be guided by their advice on what to do. We will not necessarily remain part of the government at any cost."
The National Party-led government would be able to govern with a single vote majority if the Maori Party revoked its confidence and supply agreement, and the Maori Party has always said it would vote against partial privatisation.
Also up for are partial sales are state-owned coal-miner Solid Energy and the national airline, Air New Zealand.