Prime Minister John Key has reiterated a National-led government will not negotiate a national Treaty of Waitangi settlement over Maori claims to freshwater and will not grant claims from some Maori leaders that Maori have ownership rights to freshwater.
"There won't be a national settlement under us and there won't be change of ownership under us," Key told his weekly post-Cabinet media conference yesterday. His comments came after weekend media reports that the freshwater arm of the influential Iwi Leaders Group had commissioned a report from a Wellington economic consultancy,Sapere, that recommended a national settlement and the establishment of tradable water rights.
"There are some Maori leaders who believe that actually they own the water, iwi leaders who believe they own water and should have dedicated national allocation rights, and what I'm saying is that's actually not the government's position," Key said.
The Sapere report raised concern among farmers with existing resource consents to take freshwater and saw the former leader of both the National and Act parties, Don Brash, warn of a backlash against the government by regional voters if it allowed preferential treatment for Maori claims to freshwater.
However, Key suggested the issue could be solved, at least in part, by advancing more water storage and irrigation schemes, especially if Maori land ownership structures were reformed in the current review of the Te Ture Whenua Act.
"In principle, I think there's room for everybody here," he said. "I just don't think it's something people should get particularly fearful of. If we can reform the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act, there's 1.4 million hectares of land. Some of that might be able to be irrigated, probably wasn't as easy in the past to do that t because of the ownership structure holding it back.
"Do they (Maori land owners) have any more legitimate rights than anyone else? Well, they might have the same rights, but it might have been more difficult in the past to access it," said Key, who also mentioned more than once the fact that water rights granted by resource consents generally have a finite life of around 35 years, at which point reallocation might occur anyway.
"What is true is that where you have resource consents around use of water, they aren't permanent. There is some land that Maori have control over through Te Ture Whenua Act where having access to water would be useful. "
Key said the policy aim was to "make sure water is available and used across the economy and Maori are but one -they're important, but one - of a number of stakeholders with an interest", and that the discussion on freshwater allocation and Maori claims to freshwater were issues that had been under discussion by the current and previous government.
"It's a longstanding issue and one that needs to be worked through and that's why water is not a fast run thing."