Key Rejects Maori Water Claim as N.Z. Asset Sale Hearing Begins

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key
John Key, New Zealand's prime minister. Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

New Zealand’s government rejected a Maori group’s claims that tribes are entitled to ownership of water, a case that may jeopardize the proposed sale of shares in state-owned energy companies.

“The basis of the claim from the Maori Council is that Maori own the water, and the government rejects that view,” Prime Minister John Key told Television New Zealand’s Breakfast today. The claim is being heard in Wellington from today by the Waitangi Tribunal.

Key’s government wants to raise about NZ$6 billion ($4.8 billion) from reducing its stake in Air New Zealand Ltd. and selling as much as 49 percent of four energy companies, starting with an offer of shares in Mighty River Power Ltd. this year. The Maori Council says the sales violate the 172-year-old Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s controversial founding document that gave the indigenous people rights to their land and resources.

The tribunal, a commission that makes recommendations on claims of breaches of the treaty, agreed to urgently hear the council’s application before the Mighty River sale proceeds. Its rulings are not binding on the government, but may lead to High Court litigation, Key said.

“We’ll get a legal opinion on what the Waitangi Tribunal come out and say,” Key said. “The concept that someone owns water we think is not correct.”

Private Control

Maori want to stop their “taonga,” or treasures, from being controlled by private investors who the government says won’t be liable for any unresolved Treaty claims. Maori opponents to the share sales say they turn a sacred life force - - water -- into a commodity.

“Government has consistently refused to deal with the Maori interest in water, instead running the line that nobody owns the water, while maintaining all rights of management and jurisdiction over it,” Hone Harawira, the sole member of parliament for the Mana Party, said in an e-mailed statement. “But if that was the case, then what gives them the right to sell shares in power companies that use that water?”

Mighty River operates nine hydro-electric plants on the Waikato River, the nation’s largest in the central North Island. The Auckland-based company has rights to use the water.

“We do accept people own water rights,” Key said. “We don’t believe the sale of 49 percent of Mighty River Power in any way impinges on those water rights.”

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