At a time when National cannot afford to spend additional political capital on asset sales, the emergence of legitimate Treaty interest and Māori realpolitik over the question of water ownership is likely to sap more from the National-led Government than Prime Ministerial confidence can supply.
Now, asset sales - or rather, the currently proposed mix of asset sales – have provided a golden opportunity for Māori to test their interest in water, helped along by the Treaty provisions in the State Owned Enterprises legislation.
If there’s any good news in this for the Government it’s the fact that it’s not virgin territory. The Government is well seized of the fact that ‘ownership’ is more than just possession and that there are many indicia of ownership that can be brought to bear on Māori interest.
The 2009 Waikato River settlement with Tainui is a case in point. In that case stewardship, co-governance and joint participation in resource consenting processes were employed to deliver a regional settlement that can and will resonate elsewhere.
The practical question is whether this type of approach can have application across a number of iwi whose perception of advantage and local kaitiakitanga can and will vary. The price of that solution will also be an issue as the opportunity to wrest a share deal, preferential allocation of water quota or other concession may satisfy one set of interests, whilst frustrating others.
Whatever the result, it will be grist to the mill of New Zealand First’s re-election bid and will feed the momentum of the anti-asset sales campaign. It will also call into question the timeframe within which the first shares in state assets can be made available.