It doesn’t take much for the Establishment in New Zealand to find fault with any Maori effort to get a fair go.

So it’s no surprise that, on the question of water rights in New Zealand, Maori are once again being painted as greedy and thoughtless.

Judith Collins, the former Cabinet minister, is warning New Zealanders that the pursuit of fresh water rights by iwi is really a cash grab that will hit ordinary consumers in the pocket. Federated Farmers is echoing the sentiment. And John Key, in a comment which mirrors his position in 2012, is reassuring New Zealanders that “no one owns water”.

But are iwi seeking ownership? The short answer is no. The long answer is kind of. In 2012 the Maori Council took the Government to the Waitangi Tribunal and the Supreme Court. It was concerned that the Government’s asset sales programme would prevent claimants from obtaining redress over fresh water rights.

The Waitangi Tribunal saw it that way too. The Supreme Court didn’t. But an important finding emerged from the Tribunal. It said there is no Maori equivalent to the common law concept of ownership, but there is enough evidence to satisfy the ownership argument.

Which is to say that iwi could make a claim for ownership, although the actual claim is for the recognition of their mana over fresh water resources. This is not an ownership debate but – to use the closest common law equivalent – a debate over rights.

Iwi want their mana (or rights) over fresh water to be recognised and implemented. Framing the debate as an ownership issue – like the foreshore and seabed was framed – serves no one except the opponents of rangatiratanga.

Iwi are negotiating with the Crown through the Freshwater Forum. And the deadline for the deal is February 6 next year. Who knows what the deal will include, but some of the opponents of iwi mana and rights are warning the National Party that it will face a backlash in the provinces if the Government is unduly sympathetic to the Maori case. Apocalyptic predictions aside, there does appear to be a small but organised vocal opposition and a large but unorganised latent opposition.

Whatever the numbers, it’s not an opposition with much of an argument. We already allocate rights to irrigators, tourists operators and even water-bottling companies.

So what is so different about Maori rights, other than their stronger claim as indigenous people and Treaty partners? Nothing.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the opposition to the pursuit by iwi of fresh water rights comes down to just one thing. It’s a thing that rears its head again and again in New Zealand.

It’s called racism.


© e-tangata, 2015

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