Editorial: Key fails to heed Clark's cautionary tale

What Prime Minister John Key would give right now for one of his "elegant solutions". Maybe some shares in a partially privatised energy company?

Mr Key and his National Government appear to be wading into the same murky, treacherous waters that eventually claimed Helen Clark and the fifth Labour administration.

Miss Clark won the 2005 general election that followed the seabed and foreshore controversy, but the polarising issue that gave birth to the Maori Party and brought the country's race relations into a new, sharp focus arguably signalled the beginning of the end.

It is certainly a cautionary tale that her successor cannot ignore. And this latest wrinkle in race relations comes with an even greater threat to Mr Key.

Labour had solid backing for its stance on the seabed and foreshore, and Miss Clark felt confident that she could slam the activists of the time as "haters and wreckers" without incurring too much political damage. Mr Key, however, does not have that luxury.

Maori dissent over water rights this time aligns nicely with growing public anger over the Government's plans for asset sales.

So National may be able to ignore the Waitangi Tribunal, Hone Harawira and other strident voices, but it's doubtful it will be able to continue to dismiss other more moderate objections, many of them from its own party members, and many emboldened by this latest challenge to an unpopular policy.

The latest stoush seemingly has made odd bedfellows of mainstream New Zealand and Mr Harawira and his ilk.

But maybe, just maybe, that is also because those wannabe mum and dad investors have some sympathy for what Maori are saying.

The Maori Party was born in the hot furnace of frustration and anger over the Labour Government's denial of Maori rights to follow a court process open to every New Zealander.

In 2003, the Court of Appeal had acknowledged the right of iwi in the Marlborough Sounds to test their claims to customary title. But the Labour Government moved quickly to render the ruling moot.

The rest is history that Mr Key does not appear to have learnt. Like Miss Clark, he is undermining a respected, fundamental process that allows Maori to at least have their day in court. Even if the Government can respectfully ignore its findings.

In many ways this has nothing to do with water rights and everything to do with respect, trust and honouring not only the Treaty but established treatise that bind a partnership.

Lastly, it is worth pondering a point, made by many, that no-one can own water. That would seem to be self-evident, but is not always the practice overseas, where water and access to it can indeed be privatised.

In some cases, that has led to fights not just between industry and citizenry but between nations.

And entities do not have to own water or waterways to have a significant impact on them. Consents to draw water or discharge into waterways can influence other users and their access to a vital resource.

Clearly, for Mr Key, Maori, and the rest of us, there is much more left to go under this particular bridge.

Taranaki Daily News