Jul 11, 2012

Why Maori own the water: further comments

This is from a post in February this year when news of the Maori Council lodging the water claim first broke. In light of events this week, I think the post is topical: 


Maori are not invoking the Treaty for the sake of invoking the Treaty. Maori are concerned that 1) if state assets pass in to private hands the government’s ability to settle current and future claims will be affected AND 2) Maori, as well as the Crown, are unsure what rights, if any, Maori have to water resources (i.e. ownership and management rights).

Selling state assets while question 2 is still under consideration breaches the principle of partnership and good faith. The Waitangi Tribunal holds that the Treaty guarantee of rangatiratanga requires a high priority for Maori interests where proposed works may impact on Maori taonga. With this in mind, the Crown is, arguably, obliged to consider Maori interests above private interests. The Crown is also under a duty to actively protect and give affect to property rights, management rights, Maori self regulation, tikanga Maori and the claimants (i.e. Maori) relationship with their taonga. In light of this obligation, it would be inconsistent with the principles of the Treaty for the government to ram ahead with partial privitisation without 1) determining Maori interests 2) giving those interests a “high priority” and 3) actively protecting those interests.

The duty to actively protect is a serious one. New Zealand’s greatest jurist, the late Sir Robin Cooke, held that the Crown’s obligation is not:

 Merely passive but extends to active protection of Maori people in the use of their lands and waters to the fullest extent practicable.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People also supports this position:

States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.

To be fair, the government is consulting Maori and credit to them for doing so. First criteria satisfied. However, article 32(2) – i.e. the article above – sets a requirement for “consent”. Of course, this isn’t binding on the government, but it will guide and inform any decision of the Court.
There is legal authority to support the proposition that Maori have rights to water. Lord Cooke’s obiter statement above, where he implies that Maori have rights to water, is an example. The article above also signals that the UN believes indigenous people have rights to water too. Most significantly though, the Lands case held, roughly speaking, that if the Crown was going to transfer land that was potentially subject to a claim the Crown must take steps to ensure its ability to meet the claims is not adversely affected.

John Key seems to think that no one can own water. Audrey Young's excellent overview holds that this position is correct at common law. However, Maori can, and Te Arawa is an example, own beds, banks, and potentially the airspace above. This, however, ignores the fact that Maori did not distinguish between river beds, lake banks and so on. Beds, banks and the water itself were one in the same – not constituent parts. The Courts can take this into account, and even incorporate this notion into the common law (assuming it does not offend any common law principles), however the Courts have proved reluctant to incorporate Maori customary law into the common law (the recent Takamore case is an example). As an aside, this is unfortunate and, in my opinion, hinders the development of a uniquely New Zealand legal system.

Most significantly, as No Right Turn points out, Maori water rights could persist under the doctrine of aboriginal title, or customary title as it is more commonly known in New Zealand. Customary title is a lesser form of property right than fee simple title (freehold title) and only exists if it has not been extinguished. That's the crux of it there, I think. Was Maori customary title extinguished? I agree with I/S in that I think customary title has been extinguished through various pieces of legislation. I/S holds that this is a breach of article 2 of the Treaty which guarantees Maori rangatiratanga. Of course, we have to look at this through the principles of the Treaty rather than applying the strict meaning of the text so I'm not so sure this is correct.

For the sake of this post, let’s accept that Maori do not have ownership rights. The Crown is sovereign and, under the Treaty principles, has the right to govern. Okay, Fair enough. Maori do, however, have management rights. The Crown has already explicitly recognised these rights under the Waikato river co-management deal. Ngati Tuwharetoa, Te Arawa, Raukawa and Tainui all have co-management arrangements with the Crown. Ngati Maniapoto will also, if they have not already, sign a similar deal.

Considering this, at the very least Maori have management rights and the Crown cannot move forward with partial privatisation until those rights are clarified and a regime to recognise and implement them is put in place.

Anywho, back to the main thrust of Roughan piece (you can probably tell I’m not so concerned about his column I just wanted to use it as a springboard for this discussion). I respect John Roughan, but I think he misunderstands the nature of the partnership principle. Maori and the Crown are under different, but in a few instances similar, obligations. The Crown’s obligations are similar to a fiduciary duty. This means the Crown has a legal and ethical duty as the dominant partner. Therefore, if the Crown’s duty is analogous to a fiduciary one, then the Crown must act to a stricter standard. Maori operate under a less onerous standard.

1 comment:

  1. "Customary title is a lesser form of property right than fee simple title (freehold title) and only exists if it has not been extinguished."

    Surely any extinguishing of customary title is by definition a breach of Te Tiriti?



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