3 Aug 2018

Rights to fresh water to be discussed as govt meets iwi leaders

10:08 am on 3 August 2018

After years of impasse over Māori rights to freshwater, Iwi Chairs Forum leaders may head back to court.

Wairoa River.

The government will not pursue ownership rights for Māori. Photo: Bruce Hopkins

Several Cabinet ministers are headed north to Ngaruawahia today to meet with the Iwi Chairs Forum, where water is set to be a hot issue.

It's the first meeting between the leaders and the government since Cabinet agreed not to pursue any water ownership rights for Māori.

Water ownership has long been a vexed issue for governments, which has meant little headway has been made in the past decade out of fear of opening a Pandora's Box.

In the lead-up to the election the Labour Party campaigned on a royalty on the commercial consumption of water, which would include working with iwi to resolve Treaty water claims.

That policy died when Labour went into coalition with NZ First, which is vehemently opposed to Māori ownership rights.

Cabinet has been debating the issue ever since and RNZ understands it reached an agreement.

While the government will not pursue any ownership rights for Māori, it will provide capital - most likely through the provincial growth fund - for Māori to develop water storage so they can make better use of under-developed land.

Rudy and Kay Taylor at Tuhirangi Marae.

Rudy Taylor (left, pictured with Kay Taylor at Tuhirangi Marae) says the Waitangi Tribunal has already found in favour of Māori rights to water. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

But Ngāpuhi negotiator and senior member of Labour's Māori Council Rudy Taylor said that would not float with iwi.

He likened the situation to the foreshore and seabed controversy in 2004 that led to one of the biggest hikoi ever seen at Parliament.

"I'm saying the seabed and foreshore, we won't go down that track, because it was proven that Māori had the rights to seabed and foreshore but the law changed that. No doubt Māori will think about that (today) as they talk about who has the water rights.''

Mr Taylor said the Waitangi Tribunal had already found in favour of Māori rights to water, and not upholding that would only drag it out in the courts for longer.

"I think consultation is a way forward - to listen to where things are going."

While ministers - including David Parker, Kelvin Davis, Nanaia Mahuta and James Shaw - will be in the Waikato to meet iwi leaders today, one notable absence will be Regional Economic Development and Forestry Minister Shane Jones.

Mr Jones has a close working relationship with Māori in the provinces but is known for saying "Halley's Comet will be back" before he would be prepared to meet with the Iwi Chairs Forum.

He has also publicly criticised the group on several occasions, saying they don't represent the interests of iwi or have the mandate to speak on behalf of Māori.

"In terms of going into the provinces, I said I'd do the business and meet them in their provinces, which I am doing. And look I don't shy away from the fact I've got very little interest in gracing the iwi leaders with much of my presence but I have great interest in going to every single iwi on their marae and eyeballing them.''

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