The Government's water rights roadshow is threatening to derail after one of the country's biggest tribes boycotted the first hui in Hamilton last night, and the Maori Party warned others may follow.
Finance Minister Bill English was left talking to a half-empty hall after Tainui leaders boycotted the meeting in protest at the way the Government has gone about consulting iwi over a Waitangi Tribunal report finding Maori have a proprietary interest in water.
A handful of people, including two protesters, arrived to hear Mr English's presentation on the tribunal's call to delay the sale of shares in the state-owned power companies till the Government has considered a deal giving iwi shares and rights over other shareholders.
Mr English last night defended the turnout at the first hui - one of six to be held over 10 days with iwi and hapu considered to have a special connection to freshwater and geothermal resources used by the power companies.
"It's not a farce because the Crown has a set of obligations laid out by the courts and we intend to meet those obligations.
Iwi aren't obliged to be here and they don't have to come."
He said the Government was fulfilling its obligations attending the meeting.
"There were fairly small numbers as expected but I think they covered the whole spectrum of points of view."
Waikato-Tainui did not contact the Government about the boycott and Mr English learnt of it through the media.
"They've clearly got some strong views and this is how they've chosen to express it.
"It's not clear what the message is meant to be. I think if Tainui want to give us a message they'll front up and tell us. They've got some of their own dynamics to deal with but the Crown has a job to do and we're going to get on and do it."
The Government has labelled the tribunal's "shares plus" proposal unacceptable, but says it will hold a series of consultation hui to show good faith and to satisfy its legal requirements.
It expects the Maori Council, which took the case to the tribunal, to launch a legal challenge.
Earlier, Prime Minister John Key suggested it strengthened the Government's hand legally if iwi didn't turn up - and he potentially inflamed the row by suggesting Maori had "as many positions as Lady Gaga's got outfits".
Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said the Government hui were not genuine consultation.
"I think it's inappropriate to go out with a predetermined situation rather than going out and actually consulting with iwi.
"I don't think I would have been turning up either . . . that's not consultation, that's wasting peoples' time."
She thought it likely other Maori groups would boycott the Government's hui as well.
But Mr English said he was confident other iwi would attend further meetings over the next 10 days.
Protesters Kiriana Waru and Alvina Edwards tried to set up protest signs in the meeting room but were told to take them outside before Mr English arrived.
Ms Waru said she was there to represent the next generation.
"Our bottom line is no asset sales. There's no use selling a ladder when you are stuck in a hole. It seems crazy really.
"I'm here for the minority of people who don't get a say anyway. At the end of the day we're poor and we get impacted by whatever decisions happen upstairs but we're not getting a chance to speak up."
A 1000-strong gathering of Maori last week agreed to present a unified front on water rights and agreed on the establishment of a pan-Maori group to negotiate with the Government on how those rights should be represented.
The hui was called by the Maori King.
King Tuheitia's spokesman Tukoroirangi Morgan said none of the invited leadership from Waikato-Tainui, Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Koroki Kahukura and Hauraki were attending, as a show of support for the Kingitanga and the national hui.
"We met last night [Monday] to seek support from iwi chairs and leaders and that was given. It speaks to the importance of the occasion and the issue.
"The significance of that was expounded and amplified last week, and is an ongoing call by our people to remain united in our quest to have our rights and interests identified and recognised," said Mr Morgan.
However, South Waikato iwi Raukawa, which is due to meet Mr English on Wednesday at Wairakei, near Taupo, would take part, said iwi spokesman Jon Stokes.
"We began the process to attend tomorrow, earlier this week.
"It is imperative that Raukawa leaders attend to ensure we are informed on issues which may impact on our customary and proprietary rights."
- The Dominion Post
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