The Maori flag. Photo by the Otago Daily Times.
Oh, what a tangled web has been woven. The urgent
Waitangi Tribunal hearing on water rights - and the planned
partial sale of Mighty River Power and the prospect of court
challenges - are only the beginning. If "resolutions" over
seabed and foreshore matters were complex, water rights are
much more so.
The Maori Council and some tribal and hapu interests maintain
Maori "ownership" of water, including the Waikato River. If
that is so, then how are these to be satisfied?
Will Maori interests be appeased, as in the past, with a
specific share of the pie?
Will they be "bought off" by being given a share of the
As usual, the long-suffering taxpayer would be utilised to
engineer a political and apparently pragmatic solution. The
Government - and that is the people of New Zealand - would
therefore receive less.
A major difficulty is precedent.
Conceded would be the fact of Maori water ownership, that is
to those who trace part of their ancestry to tribal groups in
particular places in the first half of the 19th century,
particularly 1840. That, surely, applies to all water to a
greater or lesser degree, while perhaps dependant in part on
the relationship with the water in the intervening years.
These New Zealanders claim privileges because of the family
they happened to be born into, and these could well apply
across the country. Do Ngai Tahu members, for example, "own"
or have some form of "guardianship" over the Water of the
Might Ngai Tahu in the future take fees from Contact Energy,
Trust Power (which would be passed on in higher electricity
charges) and farmer irrigators for the use of water?
Or will Maori involvement in Resource Management Act resource
This, too, may add another cost impost which, in effect,
waters down the rights of the community's representatives -
via regional councils - to make decisions.
Treaty of Waitangi "principles" and "partnership" and the
rights of certain New Zealanders have gained increasing legal
status since the 1987 Treaty ruling of Justice Cooke and
decisions of successive governments.
Quite clearly, it is in the interests of some people to push
separatism and distinct rights - and why wouldn't they?
Likewise, separate Maori seats and Maori parties skew the
political process in that direction. This has gained such
momentum that many, including much of the political
establishment, support its basic premises.
As for those whose interests it serves, many have - not
surprisingly - come to believe with an almost religious
fervour, and expectations have escalated. The Treaty of
Waitangi, a political document like all treaties at all
times, has become a sacred text.
It is on these understandings that the Waitangi Tribunal
While it can, and has, exposed specific exploitation and
injustices from New Zealand's post-colonial history, it and
its members come to their deliberations from a particular
viewpoint of life and history. Maori negotiators and
politicians continuously are able to use their political
astuteness to exploit their bargaining position to advance
their interests. John Key's Government, for example, was
persuaded to sign - unlike Labour - the Declaration of
Indigenous Rights. Mr Key told everyone it would make little
practical difference. Now, in the context of the Mighty River
and water claims, it is being quoted back at him.
Only a generation or two ago, it would widely have been
thought ridiculous that any New Zealander or group of New
Zealanders "owned" our basic resources. In certain circles
these days, though, it is self-evident that descendants of
the earlier inhabitants "own" not just a specific share of
deep-sea fishing rights but also water, the latest in the
series of claims.
There are claims to minerals, the airwaves, and so on. Where
will it end?
In New Zealand's current climate and given that, in the end,
interests battle it out on a political front, some sort of
messy "compromise" probably will be reached. The political
and legal situation is too complex for much else. That,
however, will not resolve the underlying issues.