Maori Council water claims rejected

The Maori Council and Maori groups have lost their initial bid to stall state asset sales over water claims.

In a ruling issued today High Court Judge Ronald Young said he was satisfied the three proposed decisions by the Crown were not reviewable by the court.

They included the decision to move Mighty River Power out of the SOE Act, amending the constitution of the power generator/retailer and selling the shares.

The New Zealand Maori Council said in a statement it was working on an appeal.

"The matter has been determined on a narrow legal issue.  The moral issue has still be to addressed in public debate.

"The Court has taken a particular view of the statutory framework to say that the government decision was not one that the Courts could review.

"The Council's concern is that government has not been willing to address the issue of indigenous water rights, as the Court itself noted, and has relied upon statutory technicalities; but in this instance we think that the view taken about the statutory framework does not fit with previous court decisions and we are now working on an appeal."

Finance Minister Bill English welcomed the decision.

"I reject the claim that there was a breached legitimate expectation of Maori either to the substantive claim or the procedural complaints which made the sale decision lawful. These claims were essentially a repeat of other claims already rejected." Justice Young said.

He was satisfied the Crown would not be acting inconsistently with the principles of the Treaty. And he was satisfied there was no connection between the sale of shares in MRP and the need to provide for Maori claims to proprietary rights in water by way of potential redress or recognition of rights.

"I do not consider the three decisions or intended decisions of the Crown... were based in part on the proposition that 'at common law no one owned the water'. No error of law was, therefore, established," he said.

The claimants had argued Prime Minister John Key's statement about the common law was linked to the Government's decision to sell.

The Crown was not obliged to allow the Waitangi Tribunal process to be finished, Justice Young said.

English said the High Court decision confirmed the Government can proceed to sell up to 49 per cent of shares in four state owned energy companies.

"The Government is firmly of the view that the partial sale of shares does not in any way affect the Crown's ability to recognise rights and interests in water, or to provide redress for genuine Treaty claims."

State-owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall said the Government's share offer programme remains on track.

"The Government remains committed to an initial public offering of Mighty River Power Shares in the first half of 2013," he said.

"If the High Court decision is appealed, we hope this can be heard as soon as possible."

He said the Government expects to raise $5 billion to $7 billion from the sales which would be used to control debt.

"It is also good for New Zealand's capital markets and it will improve the performance of the companies in the share offer programme. The Government will invest these proceeds in new public assets like modern schools and hospitals - and that's money we don't have to borrow from overseas lenders."

Labour SOE spokesman Clayton Cosgrove said the Government's asset sales "shambles is set to keep rolling".

"Today's court decision is just the first in a number of steps for this appeal to go through. It is likely there will be an appeal and New Zealanders will again have to fork up the costs of court hearings," he said.

"The state asset sales policy has been a train wreck from the beginning and has haunted the Government all year. They have tried to push this through for close to 12 months and they are still back where they started."

He said the public now deserved their say, and a petition to hold a referendum on the sales had gathered over 300,000 signatures. 

"Selling our state assets is a huge mistake and many opinion polls have shown that 80 per cent of New Zealanders are dead-set against it. It's time for the Government to listen to the people, and either hold a referendum or stop the sales."