Editorial: Key would be wise to delay asset sales

Mighty River Power: The partial sale of the energy company should wait until water issues are resolved.
Mighty River Power: The partial sale of the energy company should wait until water issues are resolved.

Like it or not, the Waitangi Tribunal is an integral part of New Zealand's constitutional framework. Its deliberations cannot be ignored without antagonising a significant proportion of the population and exposing taxpayers to unnecessary costs.

The tribunal's call for a delay to the partial sale of Mighty River Power till it has determined the extent of Maori rights and interests in water and geothermal resources puts the Government in an unenviable position.

On the one hand, it wants to get the partial sale of state assets - the cornerstone of its economic programme - under way as soon as possible. On the other, it does not want to do anything that can be characterised as acting in bad faith when it comes to dealing with Maori claims relating to state-owned power companies.

However, Prime Minister John Key would be wise to heed the call to taihoa on the sale of up to 49 per cent of Mighty River Power while the tribunal completes the first stage of its inquiry, due next month. Doing so will give the Government a clearer picture of the sort of claims it is likely to face, and how they would best be resolved.

The Government does not dispute that Maori have rights and interests in water and geothermal resources, merely how far they extend. The tribunal will shed light on that, and whether the partial sale of the power companies limits the ability to remedy any breaches.

Ignoring the tribunal's request would only inflame an already contentious issue. It would signal to Maori that the Government does not respect the tribunal's views, and that it will disregard its findings. It would also prompt the Maori Council, the principal claimant, to head to the High Court to seek an injunction that would delay the partial float of Mighty River Power, scheduled for as early as September.

Success would not be guaranteed, but the council would be armed with an Appeal Court ruling that delayed the planned sale of radio frequencies in 1990 till the tribunal had a chance to decide whether Maori had a claim over them. It was notable that the tribunal concluded its interim direction, issued on Monday, by suggesting that the Appeal Court ruling was applicable to the present request for a delay and quoting from its findings.

Nobody can deny that National has an overwhelming mandate to proceed with its asset sales programme, despite there being significant public opposition. The policy was part and parcel of the election campaign last year, and National's huge win - the biggest yet under MMP - gives it every right to proceed.

However, it has a duty to ensure the sales are properly undertaken and that taxpayers are not unnecessarily exposed to potentially huge bills for compensation to Maori who can show their Treaty rights have been breached. Its negotiating position in the event of a significant proven claim relating to Mighty River Power will be seriously weakened if it has sold down 49 per cent of the company. There would be little option but to get out the chequebook.

Delaying the float till more is known about the scope of such claims is the only responsible course.

The Dominion Post