The partial sale of state-owned energy company Mighty River Power (MRP), which runs nine power stations on the Waikato River, will make no difference to any claims to water rights on the river, Prime Minister John Key says.
The Waitangi Tribunal is today hearing an urgent submission from the Maori Council that the sale of MRP should not go ahead until the question of who owned water in New Zealand was answered. Read more about the claims, Wai 2357 and Wai 2358, here.
The Tribunal's rulings are not binding on the government, but further action in attempt to delay the sale may be taken in the High Court against the government, which wants to sell up to 49% of MRP later this year.
Speaking on TVOne's Breakfast programme on Monday morning, Key said the government's view was no one owned water in New Zealand.
However, people did own water rights, which would not be infringed on whether the government owned 100% of Mighty River Power or 51%, he said.
'Sale won't make a difference to water rights'
“I hope not,” Key said when asked whether the claim could delay the sale of MRP.
“The Maori Council have taken a case to the Waitangi Tribunal. The Waitangi Tribunal’s rulings are not binding on the government, so we could choose to ignore whatever findings they might have. I’m saying we would, but we could," he said.
“But I think there’s a next legal step that could then be taken – they could potentially go to the High Court I think and try and hear a case."
The government rejected the view from the Maori Council that Maori owned the water in New Zealand.
“What we do accept is that people own water rights and we don’t think the sale of 49% of Mighty River Power in anyway impinges on those water rights. We think that situation’s been well and truly dealt with by the government, so there’s no merit to that case," Key said.
“We’ve dealt with that through the Land and Water Forum...[which] is a collection of well over 30 interested parties in the use of water.
“That includes Federated Farmers, it will include Forest and Bird, there are a range of different people – Maori are part of all that and we certainly accept their legitimate right to be at the table, and we accept that they have a great passion and care for the rivers and the quality of rivers," he said.
“But the concept that someone owns water, we think is not correct. And anyway, Mighty River Power, and the sale of 49% of the shares, makes no difference in terms of their existing water rights.”
There was a mixture of views among Maori on the partial sale of MRP, which is set to be followed by partial sales of SOEs Genesis Energy, Meridian Energy and Solid Energy
“Some Maori want to buy shares in Mighty River Power, and their view is that the government has addressed those issues of water, and there’s a different forum for doing that. The Maori Council’s taking a slightly different view. It’s a little bit like saying all Pakeha agree on an issue – they never do,” Key said.
There was no basis to the claim that Maori owned water.
"They have a legitimate right – they have historically always had a connection with the river, and they care passionately about the quality of that and we work with them," Key said.
"For instance if you look at the Waikato River, there’s a joint river management plan there that operates," he said.
"The government addresses those genuine rights that Maori have through a variety of different mechanisms. But whether Mighty River Power’s 100% owned by the government, or 51% owned, doesn’t alter the 30-year water rights, for instance, they might have on their particular river assets.”