he Government's controversial asset sales plan is in trouble after the Waitangi Tribunal urged a halt.
In an interim report, the tribunal called on the Government to hold off on the sale until the issue of Maori water rights was resolved.
High-profile lawyer Mai Chen said there was enough in the report to worry the Crown.
"I'm not saying that it's easy, winning in the tribunal is not the same as winning in the courts, but . . . this opens it up, it doesn't shut it down," she said.
"If I was Maori I would argue that their vulnerable relationship with water has been because the Crown . . . allocates what are essentially property rights for water to others."
The Maori Council lodged a claim with the tribunal claiming Maori had rights over freshwater and the partial sale of state-owned energy companies would hamper their ability for redress.
The council, and supporting hapu, asked for a halt to asset sales while the claim was heard.
Following a two-week urgent hearing at Waiwhetu Marae in Lower Hutt this month, the tribunal yesterday released the report.
Maori Council lawyer Donna Hall said she was happy with it. "The tribunal has found that the issue of Maori proprietary interests to water resources is a serious issue that needs to be resolved."
The council has said it will fight the matter all the way to the Supreme Court.
The tribunal's "interim direction" called for maintenance of the status quo.
"The Crown ought not to commence the sale of shares in any of the mixed-ownership model companies until we have had the opportunity to complete our report."
It said the Government must have time to consider and respond before the sale went ahead.
The sale is due to go ahead in the last quarter of this year, but the tribunal's full report is not due until September.
The tribunal said the sale of shares could cause significant disadvantages to the claimants.
It also acknowledged the implications of delaying the float for the Government.
However, the claim was "not an implausible one" and the sale could alter the claimants' ability to have their Treaty rights recognised and remedied.
"Given Treaty rights of a proprietary nature have been found to exist in specific freshwater bodies in previous tribunal reports, the Crown has acknowledged that Maori do have rights in freshwater generally, and New Zealand's Court of Appeal has left open to question the nature and extent of such rights and interests; these issues warrant serious inquiry."
Prime Minister John Key said the Government would carefully consider the report before responding.
He refused to relitigate the argument of water rights, but said he stood by earlier statements that no-one could own water. "We owe it to the tribunal and to interested parties to consider that very much in good faith and very carefully."
Labour leader David Shearer said there would almost certainly be an injunction in the High Court which would cost taxpayers more.
The report highlighted what a debacle the process had been, he said. "If there is any compensation to be paid it's the taxpayer who ends up paying for it. None of this would have come about if we hadn't sold the assets."
- The Dominion Post
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