Tuhoe accuse Key of taking Urewera deal off table

17:00, May 10 2010

Prime Minister John Key personally pulled the plug on a Tuhoe bid to win ownership of Te Urewera National Park before the Cabinet had a chance to decide, the iwi's leader says.

Tuhoe chief negotiator Tamati Kruger said Mr Key told him yesterday he had removed the issue from the Cabinet agenda on Sunday night – hours after a National Party conference revealed major concerns among party leaders about a potential backlash on race relations.

"It was withdrawn by the prime minister at the 11th hour," Mr Kruger said. "I was advised that the prime minister himself withdrew it, and then he telephoned this morning just prior to the Cabinet meeting that that was the case."

Mr Key's office would not comment on the claim.

The decision to stop Tuhoe seeking ownership of the park, which includes Lake Waikaremoana, as part of a Treaty settlement is the clearest sign yet of growing sensitivities within National about a potential race relations backlash.

Mr Key and other National leaders made clear at a regional conference at the weekend that they were wary of the way issues such as the foreshore and seabed and a looming onset of Treaty settlements would be received.

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Tuhoe wants ownership of the park, with a promise to protect public access and conservation values. But Mr Key – who said on Sunday that he would not comment on the request until the Cabinet had decided it – said vesting ownership would be "unacceptable to the Government".

"It's fair to say that the proposal from Tuhoe's negotiating team falls outside of the broad principles that have operated for other Treaty negotiations. A lot of Treaty settlements have unique provisions, but in my view it would have been quite a significant step away from the broad principles under which we normally negotiate a Treaty settlement."

He said talks on the role the park would play in the Tuhoe settlement would continue, though ownership was now off the table.

He would not speculate on what might be discussed, but the Government's original offer to Tuhoe last year included a joint board to help manage the park.

Mr Kruger said the decision had been a blow to the iwi, which had cancelled a hui planned for Friday that was to have heard the latest offer. He said vesting ownership had been on the table during 18 months of settlement negotiations with several ministers, and never once had anyone from the Government side said it was unacceptable.

"The announcement by the prime minister, I think, indicates a loss of courage and nerve by the Government with negotiations with Tuhoe."