The Government insists its asset sales plans are on track despite canning a key step in preparing state-owned Mighty River Power for sale.
But Opposition MPs said the move, triggered by court action, put the March-June timetable for the partial selldown of the energy company in doubt.
Justice Young, in the High Court at Wellington, yesterday set an interim date of November 26 to hear a challenge by the Maori Council and Waikato River hapu Pouakani to the sale.
The Crown's lawyer, David Goddard, QC, had asked for a date to be set, so Cabinet could decide whether to go ahead with an order-in-council changing Mighty River Power's status from a state-owned enterprise to prepare it for sale.
After Cabinet ministers were told of the date, he returned to court to say the order would not go ahead before the full hearing.
Mr Goddard said the Crown did not expect the the November hearing would "try and solve all questions related to the ownership of water in New Zealand".
The Maori Council's Rahui Katene said the delay was an early victory, but Prime Minister John Key said victory could be claimed only if the council won in court.
"We believe we're right," he said. "It really doesn't make any difference at this point anyway because we don't need [the order] till March or April of next year."
However, he warned the public to brace for a protracted legal battle that could go to the Court of Appeal and even the Supreme Court, though he was confident the sale was on track.
"The courts have a history of understanding the timetable of the government and recognising that there's some urgency around these issues."
But Mana Party leader Hone Harawira said the March target was now in doubt.
"I don't think the court action is going to get out of the way in time for them to meet their March deadline, which means they'll have to put it off to October ," he said.
Labour spokesman Clayton Cosgrove said the latest delay underlined that the asset sales programme had become a shambles.
"What we are down to now is this Government trying to protect the PM's pride . . . whether it makes sense or not.
"They have lost a year, they are not going to get it off the first step till March or April and we have a referendum in full steam ahead," he said.
Mr Key said one option to speed up the process was to take the case straight to a higher court.
But a spokesman for Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson said there were no plans to do that. He could not say how long it would take for the legal challenge to go through all appeal stages.
Meanwhile, the Maori Council has indicated the case could cost $500,000. It has raised about half.
Mr Key said he did not believe that it met the criteria for legal aid, but he was not the one who decided.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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