Gordon Campbell on this week’s arm-wrestling over water rights

When it comes to the Waitangi Tribunal ruling on water rights, Prime Minister John Key appears to be balancing midstream on two different logs that threaten to move further apart over the next few days. While Key is being careful to say all the obligatory things about the Waitangi Tribunal findings – he will consider them in good faith, consult with the Maori Party, meet his moral and legal obligations etc etc – he is simultaneously saying to his Breakfast TV audience that the government plans to proceed full speed ahead on its asset sales programme.

Key is also letting it be known that the Crown aims to take an iwi by iwi, waterway by waterway approach to finding solutions, and a ‘shares plus’ approach to compensation. In other words, the government is entering this round of ‘consultations’ while indicating that it has largely made up its mind on the main points. While the Waitangi Tribunal has been advocating delay in order to enable proper consultation to take place, the government has not (yet) abandoned its plans to get the Mighty River selldown on the rails before Christmas. The Maori Council in particular may not welcome being ‘consulted’ by a Crown that has put a stopwatch on the table.

For that reason, the ‘sale by Christmas’ target is looking a lot more like a negotiating stance than a realistic timetable. There is, after all, no real need for headlong haste. As various institutional investors pointed out to RNZ this morning, there are no sizeable competing share issues due to hit the market between now and March 2013, so a few months’ delay would make no fundamental difference to the process. Similarly, there is little likelihood of any change in the low interest rate climate within the global economy that would be likely to alter the sale price that the Mighty River selldown could hope to achieve.

The risk in delay is all political, and not financial – and on balance, there is a different kind of political risk involved in ramming through an already unpopular policy in the face of well-based Maori demands for significant consultation and a mode of compensation that is arrived at jointly, and not via a unilateral ‘take it or leave it’ process.

All of which suggests that come decision time next week, Key the pragmatist is likely to step up and announce a brief delay to the asset sell-down timetable. Between now and that point though, the government is also likely to play hardball, to see what concessions it can earn – and what further divisions it can hope to open up between the freshwater iwi leaders and the Maori Council. After all, the government is not the only player whose negotiating position is split.