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Water claim could provoke anger - scholar

Tuesday 10 Jul 2012 12:30 p.m.

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By Janika ter Ellen

John Key says the Government's asset sales plans won't be held up by a Maori water rights claim being heard by the Waitangi Tribunal.

But the legal challenge could deter investors when the assets are floated.

The foreshore and seabed debate saw Maori mobilising in their thousands.

Now, economist and treaty scholar Brian Easton believes a claim to the water used in state-owned power companies could provoke a similar reaction.

“If the Government were to ignore those property rights, then I think there could well be the same sort of anger as occurred with the foreshore, that is they would see the Government has privatised them.”

New Zealand historian Paul Moon says time is of the essence in this case.

“The anxiety among the claimants is that if they don't get the issue addressed now, once anything falls into private ownership it falls outside the scope of the tribunal.”

But the power of the tribunal is limited and Prime Minister John Key says the challenge won't stop the asset sales.

The Maori party doesn't like that response - it was formed when the Government legislated against Maori ownership of the foreshore and seabed.

But Mr Key denies the issue is causing tension.

“They're not tense. This has been an ongoing, longstanding debate. This is not new to my Government. There have been previous other claims that Maori own the water.”

But this claim and the threat of future action through the high court could do damage to the power companies' share price when they're floated.”

Mr Easton says the issue is confusing.

“Any ambiguity, particularly a legal ambiguity of this sort, where people will be reluctant to pay for an asset - they're not quite sure what will happen to it.”

The Government may include a clause which would compensate investors for any future claims, but that would see taxpayers face ongoing risk and potential costs.

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