Sep 4, 2012
What the asset sales delay means for Maori
As the dust settles, the government’s decision to delay is looking less and less attractive. Only affected iwi will be consulted, meaning a pan-Maori solution has been rejected, the shares-plus idea has been rejected and the Cabinet have unilaterally imposed a tiny consultation period. So for iwi who are not Waikato-Tainui, this is a loss.
What the delay means for Maori
Well, we are no closer to establishing what rights and interests Maori have and how far those rights and interests extend. The Waitangi Tribunal have given us a guide, but the rejection of a pan-Maori solution means we will not receive a definitive statement.
A pan-Maori settlement would have clarified what rights and interests we have and how they should be compensated. However, an iwi by iwi approach is a buy-off process for the government. The government will, iwi by iwi, purchase their complicity.
Essentially, it’s divide and rule. The government will drive a wedge between iwi. On one end, the government will co-opt iwi who are affected by the sale of Mighty River Power, including the powerful Waikato-Tainui, while on the other end the government will marginalise iwi who are not affected. Those iwi that stand to drive a deal, think Waikato-Tainui, will then apply pressure on other iwi to drop their opposition. In effect, those iwi who are co-opted will be doing the government’s work for them.
It’s all very clever, pats on the back all round, but none of this will prevent the Maori Council filing Court action.
The legal position
The government’s decision to delay and consult is also a move to mitigate the legal risk. The Court will look more favourably on a government that appears to be acting in good faith. It’s no coincidence that the word “good faith” is repeated ad nauseam. However, the government is wrong in thinking that the appearance of good faith will insulate them against a negative Court judgment. The government’s solution, even if proven that it was conceived and implemented in good faith, is still a breach of the principles of the Treaty.
The central question, however, will be whether or not Maori have an ownership interest in water. The Waitangi Tribunal’s report answers in the positive, quite emphatically too. Even if the Court finds Maori have interests less than ownership, there are strong grounds to argue a breach of the Treaty.
After all, the Crown is under a duty to “actively protect” Maori property rights, management rights and our relationship with our taonga. To quote Cooke P, as he then was, this obligation is not “passive but extends to the active protection of the Maori people in the use of their lands and waters to the fullest extent practicable”. The government, it can be argued, has undermined Maori rights rather than actively protect.
Should the issue reach Court, and that seems likely with the government rejecting a pan-Maori solution, then Maori have a better than even chance at establishing ownership rights and solid case for establishing a breach.
The politics of the issue
The politics is chaotic. The referendum opposing the sales will gather enough signatures in the next few weeks. The signatures will be verified and that will trigger a referendum that must be held within the year. The government, however, will not be stupid enough to schedule the referendum before the sale of Mighty River Power.
However, what complicates opposition to asset sales is opposition to Maori rights. Arguably, opposition to the latter is stronger than opposition to the former. Therefore, any deal that Maori sees Maori gain a slice of MRP would increase opposition against the sales.
Most New Zealanders also see asset sales for the train wreck that it is. History, I think, will not look favourably on this government’s political management. There are further bumps to come. Court action, further tension with the Maori Party and so on. Whatever way you look at it, this isn’t going to be a clean.
What happens now?
The government will undertake a 5 week consultation period with iwi affected. Although the Prime Minister has stated that shares-plus is not favoured, Chris Finlayson has indicated if iwi can make a strong case for shares-plus then the government will listen. The shares-plus option could include golden shares, a board position(s), a place in the constitution of the company and so on. I can almost assure you that Waikato-Tainui will take the deal – they’ll do what’s in their commercial interests – while the smaller and in some cases pre-settlement iwi will bow to the pressure to do the same.
The Maori Council is the unknown quantity in this equation. The government and the Maori Party will meet with the Council. The next step, assuming the government and Maori Party cannot placate the Council, will be Court action. More iwi, I predict, would join the action too. Court action, even if the government wins, is the worst possible outcome. An injunction would operate while the issue is before the Courts, and it could be before the Courts until 2014, meaning that an injunction rather than an unfavourable judgment would derail asset sales. Whatever way you look at it, this isn't going to be clean.
More to come as the issue progresses.