Next move awaited in water saga

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 04/09/2012

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Opposition parties are calling on the Government to hold a referendum on its controversial asset sales programme, saying the delay of the Mighty River Power share float gives enough time to consult the entire country, as well as Maori.

Maori water claimants will meet today to decide their next move after the Government was forced to delay its first asset sale till next year and rejected a bid for iwi control over freshwater assets.

It followed a Waitangi Tribunal report calling for the sales to be delayed until a mechanism could be established to compensate iwi who have freshwater claims in the companies' catchment areas. The Tribunal says the Government will be breaching the Treaty of Waitangi if it goes ahead sooner.

The Government's opponents yesterday said National's flagship asset sales programme was a train wreck after Prime Minister John Key announced the Mighty River Power share float had been delayed till March at the earliest while the Government negotiated with iwi claimants over a Waitangi Tribunal report issued last month.

The Cabinet yesterday threw out most of the tribunal's recommendations, which included a national hui and pan-Maori water settlement, and a "shares-plus" deal for iwi whose water claims fell within energy company catchments. Under the shares plus concept, iwi shareholders on the partially privatised power companies would effectively have a right of veto over management decisions.

Mr Key said "shares plus" would deliver Maori interests particular rights and powers "above and beyond the rights of other shareholders".

The Government also rejected the tribunal's suggestion of a national water settlement - an arrangement which senior Government sources suggest came with a demand for Maori to effectively own 20 per cent of all fresh water.

But the Government has given itself five weeks to consult with iwi and pushed out the first share float till next year in the expectation there will be a legal challenge by the Maori Council.

Mr Key made it clear yesterday that the consultation period was not likely to see the Government change its mind, but was required to strengthen the Government's legal position.

But it means the Government has taken a $5 million to $10 million hit on the decision to delay the first share float, and the costs could mount even higher as it is forced to run higher debt in the short term. It had already booked the $5 billion to $7 billion return from share floats.

Labour leader David Shearer said the asset sales programme was "completely off the rails" and Government bungling had done significant damage. "No investor is going to invest in Mighty River Power when all of this negotiation is still up for grabs."

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The Maori Council has threatened to seek an injunction if the Government rejects the Waitangi Tribunal recommendations but yesterday backed off immediate action.

Deputy chairwoman Rahui Katene said a claimant management committee would meet today and the group needed time to digest the Government's decision.

The council said the delay to the sale of Mighty River Power vindicated its case to the tribunal.

Mr Key said the Government would proceed with two share floats next year - the first, Mighty River Power early in the year, and either Meridian or Genesis late in the year. The third will take place in early 2014 - a date the Government would have preferred to avoid as it is an election year.

THE CASE

The Government's decision to sell a minority stake in the State-owned power companies sparked an urgent hearing by the Waitangi Tribunal on a bid by the Maori Council to halt the sales till Maori rights and interests over water and geothermal assets were resolved.

The tribunal agreed that Maori had residual proprietary rights over water and said the Government should negotiate with individual iwi before the assets were sold. Among the options it proposed was "shares plus", delivering Maori shareholders special agreements and revamped company constitutions giving them enhanced power in the power-generating companies and providing meaningful rights recognition.

Cabinet yesterday rejected "shares plus" but said it would negotiate other issues with affected iwi before the first sale in March.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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