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Key hanging tough on pre-Christmas asset sales

Key hanging tough on pre-Christmas asset sales

By Pattrick Smellie

Aug. 27 (BusinessDesk) - Prime Minister John Key is hanging tough on the government's intention to sell up to 49 percent of the state-owned power company MightyRiverPower before Christmas, arguing the government is already working with Maori to recognise legitimate rights and interests in fresh water.

Speaking at his post-Cabinet press conference, Key said he expects to take recommendations on a response to last Friday's Waitangi Tribunal report seeking a halt to asset sales while Maori claims to fresh water are settled.

The one week period for advice and decisions was to allow enough time for the Maori Council to mount a court challenge, should the government decide to proceed with the sale, and for there still to be time to partially float MRP before the Christmas break.

Asked whether he was now less certain than ever that the government's asset sales programme would kick off in this calendar year, Key said: "I wouldn't say that.

"The courts will be able to look at what's been historically agreed," he said, referring to processes such as the co-management agreement between the Crown and Tainui to clean up the Waikato River, and the Land and Water Forum process on freshwater allocation, which is due to report next month, and has had significant input from the Iwi Leaders Group on freshwater.

Key appears to be relying heavily on fractured views among Maori interest groups. While the Maori Council's view has been backed by the Waitangi Tribunal, the paramount chief of Tuwharetoa, Sir Tumu Te Heu Heu told the New Zealand Herald the tribunal's report built on existing understandings.

It was "entirely consistent with the basis on which the iwi leaders' group has been advancing these issues with the Crown," he said, in a rare instance of direct media comment from one of Maoridom's most senior and revered figures.

"The preference of the iwi leaders' group has always been to advance these issues in direct negotiation with the Crown, not through litigation. The tribunal's report does not alter that focus or commitment," he said.

The National Business Review reported Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples as saying Key had given him no indication he intended to slow the sales process down.

However, while he is waiting for official advice, Key continues to argue the Crown's legal position during the recent tribunal hearings on the Maori Council's claim, and to hint at an expectation that the wide range of consultations already occurring with Maori on freshwater issues may be sufficient to block any attempt by the Maori Council to use court action to block the sale process.

"The government has had a process that's worked well" on fresh water negotiations, he said. "River by river, iwi by iwi, negotiating rights and interests. The reason the iwi leaders are preferring this over a court process is that they are confident their rights and interests will be recognised."

Key confirmed that there are only two timeslots annually in which the partial privatisations can occur, in March/April, and around September/October, owing to the timing of the companies' profit announcements and the need to hold a large public share float outside of traditional holiday periods.


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