OPINION: The simmering row over Maori water rights seems set to spill over into the courts, both legal and of public opinion.
The issue has the potential to be more divisive than the foreshore and seabed row, and more politically damaging for the National Government.
Not only does it involve the complex issue of Maori rights to rivers, lakes and aquifers, but it is also tied into the Government's flagship economic platform of partial asset sales.
This week, the Government delayed the partial privatisation of electricity generator Mighty River Power until March next year after a landmark Waitangi Tribunal decision.
The tribunal found in favour of a Maori Council claim that iwi had residual property rights to freshwater under the Treaty of Waitangi.
The tribunal recommended the delay of the four power company asset sales until a mechanism could be found to compensate Maori for their freshwater rights in the companies' catchment areas.
The Cabinet has already rejected tribunal proposals for a national hui, and a pan-Maori settlement on water rights, and is unimpressed by a “shares plus" proposal giving iwi shareholders in the partly privatised power companies an effective veto right over management decisions.
That is hardly a workable recipe for a power company, or one that will attract investors.
The Government will consult iwi on the issues for five weeks, but has indicated it is unlikely to change its mind.
That timetable is a drop in the bucket to reach agreement on an issue that has not been resolved in more than 80 years of Maori claims over water.
Encouraged by the tribunal decision, Hawke's Bay tribe Ngati Kahungunu has announced it is lodging a statement of claim, involving fresh water, including the country's second-largest aquifer.
It is unrelated to asset sales but shows a gathering momentum to push for water rights settlement.
Unlike Maori land claims that have gained general acceptance in the past 17 years - though with questions about the cost and length of time taken to resolve them - claims over water have thornier issues.
Among them is the vexed question of whether water can be owned. The tribunal says the Treaty guarantees Maori exclusive right to control access and use water; the Government says no-one owns water and while Maori have rights and interests, they do not amount to ownership.
An out-of-court settlement that satisfies Maori interests in water, the Government and the wider public is a slim hope, but one that should be pursued to the fullest.
The more likely court battle - one that will probably go all the way to the Supreme Court - stands to benefit mainly lawyers.
The outcome of such a case is uncertain, and could leave the Government resorting to legislation, as Labour did in the foreshore and seabed case with all the divisiveness that entails.
One result is clear - the resumption of a national debate about the Treaty's place and meaning. That is not necessarily a bad thing.
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