OPINION: The exact date of Maori arrival in New Zealand is a mystery, although carbon dating and Maori oral tradition point to the 13th century. About one thing, however, there is no doubt. Contrary to the impression created by the bellicose posturing of the Maori king, Maori have not ''always owned the water''.
Scientists estimate New Zealand broke away from the Gondwana supercontinent about 85 million years ago. Give or take a few hundred millennia, that means Maori have inhabited the country for about 0.0009 per cent of the time it has existed as a distinct entity. Rain fell from the skies, coursed down the hills and found its way into rivers, streams and lakes for millions of years before Maori first hauled their canoes up onto beaches, and will continue to do so long after humanity has ceased to exist. Claiming ownership of the water is about as foolish as claiming ownership of the wind, the air or the stars.
That is not to say Maori do not have a spiritual and emotional connection to particular waterways and lakes. They do, as do many non-Maori. Nor is it to deny that Maori may have ''residual proprietary'' interests in particular streams, rivers and lakes arising from guarantees contained in the Treaty of Waitangi. The Waitangi Tribunal has ruled they do and Crown lawyers have effectively conceded the point. The argument is over the extent and nature of those interests.
However, to suggest, as King Tuheitia did, that Maori own the water in the same way that someone can be said to own a television set, washing machine or pair of shoes is nonsensical.
Water cannot be owned; water rights can be, but they are a different thing and come with lesser entitlements. Conflating the two antagonises non-Maori, raises Maori expectations to levels that cannot be satisfied and undermines public support for the settlement of historic grievances.
That is not what Maoridom needs from its leaders as the country grapples with the most contentious race relations issue to arise since the Appeal Court ruled in 2003 that Maori might be able to lay claim to parts of the foreshore and debate.
Then, the detail of the court's judgement got lost in the hysteria provoked by its findings. The judges believed that Maori would, at most, only be able to prove ownership to discrete and relatively small sections of the foreshore. But Pakeha quickly came to believe Maori were claiming ownership of the entire foreshore and seabed and Maori came to believe they were being denied it.
Unfounded assertions increase the likelihood of emotion again distorting the debate. Maori have a right to state their case, but their cause is not helped by extravagant rhetoric. As Tuwharetoa paramount chief Sir Tumu te Heuheu observed at the same hui at which King Tuheitia spoke, recent history has shown Maori profit not at all when the Crown is backed into a corner.
Issuing unreasonable and unrealistic demands is not what Maoridom needs from its leaders.
What it does need is cool heads, resolve and a willingness to acknowledge that the Crown is obliged to govern in the interests of all New Zealanders.
- The Dominion Post