Claim on water case of deja vu

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 07:04 10/07/2012

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Is history repeating itself? John Key's emphatic rejection yesterday of any Maori claim over water rights has faint echoes of the row over the foreshore and seabed nearly a decade ago.

OPINION: In 2003, when the Appeal Court ruled that the Maori Land Court had jurisdiction over whether any part of the foreshore and seabed was still Maori customary land, Labour panicked and passed legislation a year later overriding the court. It was spooked by a potential Pakeha backlash at the prospect of Maori claiming ownership over parts of the coastline.

But Prime Minister Helen Clark's response, the infamous Foreshore and Seabed Act, was seen by Maori as an act of bad faith.

The act ultimately led to the birth of the Maori Party and a protest by tens of thousands of Maori on the steps of Parliament.

What started out as an obscure court ruling affecting only a handful of iwi turned instead into a row over wholesale confiscation.

Mr Key's refusal yesterday to countenance any notion that Maori might own our water plays to the same galleries.

And by putting his stake in the ground so early, it also risks courting the same response from Maori, who will cry foul about riding roughshod over due process.

There are also important differences with 2003 - any government is free to ignore the Waitangi Tribunal's recommendations, which are not binding; the Maori Council does not enjoy the wholehearted backing of iwi leaders, many of whom the Government remains in direct negotiation with; and the ramifications of any court finding in favour of Maori claims to owning the water are more far reaching than the ruling over the foreshore and seabed.

But the tribunal hearing and the Government's asset sales have only thrust into prominence an issue which has been bubbling away beneath the surface - the debate over water rights and water use.

Which means Mr Key could have a tiger by the tail, all the same.

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