Key leaves door open for Maori Party meeting

TRACY WATKINS AND KATE CHAPMAN
Last updated 15:43 12/07/2012
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STANDING BY THE TREATY: Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples.
Fairfax NZ
PITA SHARPLES: Would prefer to stay in government and get policy wins from the inside.

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Prime Minister John Key has firmed up plans to meet the Maori Party after initially saying he was too busy.

The Maori Party were upset by Key's suggestions that the Government could ignore recommendations made by the Waitangi Tribunal hearing on water rights, and wanted a meeting with him.

Key told reporters he planned to meet with co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia in the middle of next week.

"We've had a really good, constructive working relationship with the Maori Party. I hope that continues and I'm sure and confident it actually will."

He would not say anything different in private than what he had already said publicly, he said.

"I can't see why you would not have a continued relationship for either stating the Government's position or stating the law as it applies to tribunals in the court. It's not a threatening conversation, it's just a statement of reality."

Maori that believe they own water have a right to argue their case, he said. But he was adamant no one owned the water.

"There are also Maori who believe they own the air, there are Maori who believe they own the geothermal assets, and there are Maori who believe they own a number of other assets, which are largely in the contemporary claim area. I would dispute those."

However, the Waitangi Tribunal was "absolutely still relevant".

In a show of solidarity with claimants pressing their case over water rights to the Waitangi Tribunal, Turia made an appearance at the hearings yesterday and refused to offer assurances over the future of the coalition with National.

Asked if it was the most serious rift yet between National and the Maori Party, she responded: "I don't know whether I could say that, but I am really concerned about the fallout from it."

She confirmed the co-leaders would be speaking to Maori Party council members and the future of the relationship rested with them.

"That's for them to decide really."

Sharples earlier reiterated that he would prefer to stay in government and get policy wins from the inside.

But Turia acknowledged the party was "disappointed" with Key and also considered his remarks inflammatory.

"It has been inflammatory when you look at radio talkback."

Issues such as water, or the foreshore and seabed, exposed the racism that was "simmering just below the surface of mainstream New Zealand", she said.

Key has repeatedly rejected the notion that Maori have an ownership right over water – which goes to the heart of the Waitangi Tribunal case – and has suggested the Government could ignore any recommendation that finds otherwise.

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The tribunal has been holding urgent hearings this week after being asked to make a finding before the Government goes ahead with the share float for state-owned electricity generator Mighty River Power.

Staff from Turia's and Sharples' offices spent yesterday trying to find a time for them to meet Key after earlier suggestions they would be seeking an urgent meeting to air concerns.

Earlier, Key said Turia was "more than welcome to ring me" but his travel schedule would not allow a face-to-face meeting this week.

"I'm more than happy to talk to them but there's nothing new in what I've said and nothing I've said publicly differs to what I would say [privately]."

Key is in Wellington today. Turia will be at a tangi in Whanganui.

The Government's asset sales timetable could be jeopardised by the row.

Key would not rule out a delay yesterday, although he said he "would hope not. I can't for the life of me see why the sale of shares in Mighty River Power would have any impact on the issue of water."

HEARING RESUMES

The hearing into Maori water rights and state owned asset sales got underway today with further criticism of the Government.

Ngati Ruapani lawyer Kathy Ertel said this was the most disrespectful the Crown had ever been.

"In my experience in representing claimants over the last 20 years in the Waitangi Tribunal I've never seen the Crown be as disrespectful to both the process and the claims being advanced by Maori."

That was because the Government wanted to push on with the planned sale of state owned energy companies.

"That is what has sparked this debate."

The assets being sold were dependent on the use of water.

"Maori interest in water must be determined before the sale, Ertel said.

"The Prime Minister has come out and said that those claims will not be accepted."

Economist Ganesh Nana also appeared before the Tribunal at Waiwhetu Marae in Lower Hutt this morning.

He said the income from selling off the assets was insufficient to compensate for lost dividends.

The Government must ensure it has enough left to be able to offer remedy to future claims on the assets, he said.

Nana said the share price would be driven down by uncertainty over water rights.

It did not matter who owned the water but there needed to be certainty, he said.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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