The Waitangi Tribunal will deliver its findings on a landmark Maori claim involving water rights within weeks.
The Maori Council, and several supporting hapu groups, lodged a claim with the tribunal saying Maori have ownership rights over freshwater and that the part-privatisation of state power generating assets will affect their position for redress.
The Government's position is that no one owns water.
The Crown wrapped up its case yesterday - and said Maori water rights should be dealt with after the privatisation of electricity companies, because the Government is not selling shares in water.
Experts appearing on behalf of the council last week said selling the companies before Maori water rights were clarified could open the Government to international legal action and drive down the share prices.
Crown lawyer Paul Radich told the hearing yesterday the sale would not get in the way of Maori seeking recognition or redress for breached rights.
"The Crown is not selling a shareholding in water. It's a share in one of hundreds of water users."
Electricity generation companies had resource consent allowing them to use water. That did not constitute ownership, he said.
Options for redress included changes to resource management laws, compensation for past wrongs and commercial recognition of property rights.
The Government was already working with Maori on water issues through the Iwi Leaders Group and Land and Water Forum, Mr Radich said.
Tribunal member Timothy Castle questioned why the matter "could not have been dealt with long before the mixed ownership model proposition", especially considering work was already under way.
He asked whether the privatisation would see Maori lose their ability to exercise rangatiratanga [sovereignty] and mana.
Mr Radich said that after the sale Maori would still have the ability to seek redress. "There was no intention, on part of the Government, that work on mixed ownership model would prejudice Maori interest in water."
Crown lawyers and Government politicians used initial opposition from the Iwi Leaders Group to argue their case. The group opposed the urgent hearing but has since indicated it supports debate on the wider issue.
Mr Castle said the requirement for the Crown to facilitate on Maori water rights went "far beyond" the group.
Another Crown lawyer, Kieran Raftery, said the Crown had never disputed that Maori had rights and interest in water.
"The Crown has said now and will say it again . . . unequivocally, the answer is yes."
Water was an important resource for all cultures and the Crown had an obligation to look after everyone's interests.
Mr Raftery said the word "ownership" had been a distraction from proceedings.
"Being fixated by this term is not helping . . . we must find a common language."
The Crown lawyers also believed Prime Minister John Key's comments about the issue had been a distraction, but said they had been taken out of context.
Mana Party leader Hone Harawira said the debate had been difficult for Maori who wanted recognition of their special link to water.
"The relationship for Maori is far deeper . . . in the John Key notion of ownership I think Maori want to assert their rights as kaitiaki [guardians] and their mana to those water resources right throughout Aotearoa."
Tribunal chief judge Wilson Isaac said water rights were a complex issue and one of national significance.
"Some of these issues we consider are the heart of the Maori-Crown relationship."
The Crown has until Monday to provide final submissions and the claimants have until Wednesday to reply in writing.
The tribunal is expected to provide an interim report by the end of the month.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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