High Court next for water sale fight

MARIKA HILL
Last updated 05:00 22/07/2012

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Embattled Maori remain determined to halt partial asset sales, despite Prime Minister John Key's repeated declarations that no one owns water.

As the final submissions on Maori ownership of water were heard at the Waitangi Tribunal on Friday, some iwi groups were claiming victory over the issue while others planned to mount a second legal argument through the High Court.

Key has made it clear to the public the Government can choose to ignore the Waitangi Tribunal's recommendations, but that had not deterred those fighting the part privatisation of public assets.

Time is running out for those who want to stop partial state asset sales. Legislation allowing the sales was passed last month and the sale could begin as soon as September.

Waikato-based iwi Pouakani are seeking an injunction at the High Court to stop the sale of Mighty River Power over claims they own the riverbed.

Lawyer Janet Mason, who specialises in Treaty of Waitangi claims, said if Pouakani didn't seek an injunction someone else would - and that they had a good chance of victory.

“There will be a High Court injunction," she said.

“The only thing that would win against that [injunction] would be the Crown's argument that no one owns water. Is that realistic? I just don't think it is.”

She said it was a fallacy for Key to claim no one owns water.

“Obviously there's water flowing around, by the time someone drinks it out of bottle or turns on a light to get electricity, it's got a commercial value.

“It's just a misnomer to say no one owns water.”

Even the concept of selling water throws up issues. It is not like coal or fish, which is used once.

With water, you can use the resource again and again.

Economists look at the value of using water, rather than selling it.

Mason said she was confident the Waitangi Tribunal would grant Maori customary rights on water.

She cited the landmark Ngati Apa Court of Appeal decision that made it possible for Maori to go to court to seek customary title

Far North iwi leader Haami Piripi said it was inevitable the tribunal would agree there was Maori interest in water.

However, he said there were divisions within Maoridom over how a potential favourable decision would play out.

Currently, the Maori Council has authority to negotiate deals with the Crown.

“The Maori Council on the ground is really a defunct organisation,” Piripi said.

“But it does have legislation and is the only Maori organisation with a national mandate to speak on behalf of all Maori, so it's hard to ignore it, and it has a strong track record of success.”

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He said the Crown must separate customary and commercial interests. Negotiations on commercial interest could be discussed within individual iwi, whereas a national body could look at customary rights.

Despite differences between iwi, Piripi said there was a united front when it came to stopping partial asset sales.

“It's a big issue for us up here, especially with customary usage. We're very supportive of the claim and the stand that both iwi leaders and the Maori Council are taking.”

The water ownership issue has incited a backlash within some circles, with some people venting on online forums that Maori are just eyeing up the dollars.

Piripi said he understood that people were scared water was being taken from them, but the issue was not about turning off the tap for New Zealanders.

“In the Far North, we're a little less concerned about redneck attitudes because, at the end of the day, we are just exercising our rights to the limit of the law.

“People just don't really understand the issues. We can see that," Piripi said. "It's just a matter of having faith in the process and the people involved, and hoping it will all pan out.”

- © Fairfax NZ News

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