Government ally the Maori Party is backing King Tuheitia over his claim that Maori have always owned the water.
The Government holds the first of six hui today over a Waitangi Tribunal report suggesting the Crown would be in breach of the Treaty of Waitangi if it proceeded with the sale of shares in state-owned power companies.
The hui are ostensibly to consult with Maori over the tribunal's call for the Crown to allocate a special shareholding to Maori with claims relating to freshwater and geothermal assets, recognising their rights and interests over other shareholders.
But the Government has already rejected the tribunal's "shares plus" proposal as unacceptable - suggesting the hui are largely aimed at bolstering its legal position should Maori take the matter to court.
Prime Minister John Key also rejected King Tuheitia's claim that Maori have always owned the water - a statement delivered by the king as he wrapped up a 1000-strong hui last week calling for Maori to present a united front on the issue.
Mr Key said the king was "plain wrong" but Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples said yesterday Mr Key was wrong.
"Till we sit down under the Treaty of Waitangi and discuss the differences . . . then this argument will go on and on."
The important difference this time was Mr Key's word that the Crown would not legislate away Maori rights if the courts found in their favour, Dr Sharples said.
"We asked for that guarantee, the prime minister gave it and I believe he will keep his word on that."
But Mr Key stopped short of a cast-iron guarantee against legislation yesterday - only suggesting that it was unlikely to be needed, since it would probably take 20 years for any claim to wind its way through the courts.
He also appeared to pre-empt the next move from iwi leaders, who plan to present the Government with a framework for recognising Maori rights and interests over water, including decision-making powers over how water is used and allocated, and being able to share in the economic benefits of any developments.
Mr Key said the recent settlement with Tainui giving them co-management and guardianship rights already provided a national framework for future settlements.
- Fairfax Media