Issues raised by the Treaty of Waitangi are already well-known to investors in New Zealand, Prime Minister John Key says.
The government has been trying to downplay the possible impact of any court action taken by Maori over water rights ahead of the partial float of State-owned Mighty River Power (MRP), which has nine hydro power stations on the Waikato River.
This comes after the Waitangi Tribunal last week began to hear claims led by the Maori Council that Maori had ownership of water and rights to use water. The Council argued 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 hearing continues this week.
While the Tribunal's decision was not binding on the government, the Maori Council indicated it was likely to follow the case up through the courts. Key said the government thought such substantive court action could take "years and years and years" to complete.
It was "very unlikely" a court would say authoritatively that Maori had ownership of water, Key said.
Speaking on Newstalk ZB on Monday morning, Key said the government believed forums like the Land and Water Forum, or work with Maori on co-management of waterways, were the right places to debate the issue, not in court.
Key said his comments last week that the government might ignore any Waitangi Tribunal recommendation on water rights were not made to wind people up.
“We might listen to them, but we also might not, and the government’s very long held view has been, no one owns water," he said.
Key said he thought it was very unlikely a court would actually say authoritatively that Maori owned water.
“The reason for that is, that the common law position that’s been established is that they don’t, and that’s in a number of jurisdictions," Key said.
“It is possible but it would be very unlikely," he said.
“The second thing is, they would have to go through what’s called a substantive hearing. In other words, hear all the interests. That could quite frankly take years and years and years.”
If there was a fundamental change and a decision by a court in a decade’s time that Maori owned water, that could potentially have a cost for Mighty River Power. However it would for every business and household in New Zealand. Mighty River, like everyone else, would have to deal with that at the time.
“Whether it would increase its power prices for instance, to cover that additional cost, who knows how they would deal with that?" Key said.
Issues relating to Maori and the Treaty were well-established in New Zealand, and New Zealand investors knew about those issues.
"And look, Contact Energy’s on the market. It’s been a successful float for a long period of time. They also use water. So it wouldn’t be unique to Mighty River Power," Key said.