An influential iwi leader may have given the Government's legal team a boost as it prepares to mount a defence to a Maori Council bid to stop its flagship asset sales programme.
Ngai Tahu iwi leader Mark Solomon told TVNZ's Q and A yesterday that he does not believe that any sell-down of the southern state power company Meridian would have any impact on Ngai Tahu's rights and interests in water.
That is exactly the argument the Crown will be mounting in the High Court at Wellington tomorrow against the part sale of the first SOE off the block, Mighty River Power.
He also disagreed with the finding of the Waitangi Tribunal that it would be a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi if the Government proceeded to sell shares without first providing Maori with a remedy to recognise their rights.
He pointed out that that tribunal had also said that a sell-down of 49 per cent did not prevent the Government from addressing the rights and the interests of Maori - a contradiction the Government has similarly pointed to on several occasions.
"Personally I do not believe that the sell-down of parts of Meridian will affect Ngai Tahu's rights and interest to water," Mr Solomon said.
This will be a huge fillip to the Government, and a blow to the Maori Council and Iwi Leaders' Group. Ngai Tahu is among the wealthiest and most savvy iwi, and the significance of its rejection of the notion that SOE sales might affect future water rights negotiations cannot be overestimated.
And it's not even as though Mark Solomon supports asset sales; read on:
Mr Solomon, the chairman of Ngai Tahu, said he was personally uncomfortable with the sell-down of state owned enterprises because while it was only 49 per cent now, no Government could bind a future Government to stick with that.
However his views will not stop the tribe's investment arm from investing in the shares if it deems it would be a good investment.
"We have a fiduciary responsibility on behalf of the Ngai Tahu families to manage the assets well and to get a good return."
He said the Crown had already acknowledged that Maori had rights and interests in water. There was a process underway in the Land and Water Forum and Ngai Tahu had been an active participant.
Ngai Tahu has invested wisely. The Herald notes that it has turned its 1994 settlement of $170m into an asset base almost five times that size. The investment arm of Ngai Tahu has been hugely successful, unlike other iwi which squandered settlement monies on speculative investments and rugby league teams. And Mark Solomon is showing a good deal of pragmatism here; acknowledging that whilst he has some concerns over asset sales, they will be an excellent legacy investment for his iwi.
And lastly, Solomon has fired a shot at Winston Peters:
He dismissed the claim by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters that the Crown had engaged in divide and rule tactics on an option allowing iwi that have yet to settle to buy SOEs in advance of their settlements - with the purchase to be taken off their final settlements.
"How does that buy them off?" Mr Solomon said. "It's an offer. They have an option. They can say yes or no. There is no buy-off."
Mark Solomon is quite right, and as is often the case, Winston Peters is quite wrong. Share offers to iwi which have yet to settle treaty claims will not be made on a take-it-or-leave-it basis; it will be up to individual iwi to decide whether SOE's are a good investment for the people they represent.
The Government will be heartened by Ngai Tahu's support. And Mark Solomon is demonstrating why his iwi has become the giant that it has become.