11 Jul 2012

Maori Council complains over PM's comments

5:14 am on 11 July 2012

The Maori Council's legal team has complained to the Waitangi Tribunal over the conduct of Prime Minister John Key amid a hearing into water rights.

The tribunal is hearing from claimants who want ownership and management issues settled by the Crown before the partial sale of selected state-owned assets.

The Mixed Ownership Model Bill passed in Parliament by 61 votes to 60 on 26 June this year. The legislation opens the door for the sale of up to 49% of shares in Genesis Energy, Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power and Solid Energy.

The tribunal began urgent hearings at Waiwhetu Marae in Lower Hutt on Monday on water claims filed by the Maori Council on behalf of iwi. The council is seeking recognition of water rights and a recommendation to freeze Crown share sales in the companies.

On Tuesday, lawyers told the tribunal they are concerned Mr Key's comments in the media about the outcome of the inquiry could be seen as an attempt to influence the tribunal.

Crown representatives at the hearing on Tuesday have been ordered to investigate the statements and to report back next Monday.

John Key is insisting that the Government is acting in good faith over the tribunal's hearing, after earlier saying he does not think there is merit in the Maori Council's claim and that the Government has no obligation to heed the outcome of the hearing.

Mr Key told reporters in Hamilton on Tuesday the Government will consider the tribunal's findings once they have been presented.

"We're going through a process. We'll be interested to see what the Waitangi Tribunal says; we're acting in good faith. We take the process seriously - but that doesn't mean we're bound by it and that's the law in New Zealand."

Mr Key says the Government does not doubt the sincerity of Maori, or their relationship and interest with water, but rejects any suggestion that Maori own water. He says there is a difference between interests and rights, which the Government negotiates through the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process.

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples says the Government is obliged to consider properly and in good faith the outcome of the hearing.

Dr Sharples told Checkpoint on Tuesday the government of the time has the right not to follow the recommendations.

"But they have a responsibility, and I would say they're bound by statute to hear the submissions and to consider them in good faith before making comments about them which suggest that it's all over rover."

Sales could be delayed, Key admits

Earlier, the Prime Minister acknowledged that a court injunction could delay the progress of the partial asset sales programme.

John Key says the tribunal hearing's outcome would not prevent the Government proceeding, but action taken through the courts would be a different matter.

Mr Key says he hopes any court action would be decided quickly, given there is already a proposed date for the first share float.