Govt’s view on water rights ‘unsustainable’By Russell Marshall Former MP for Whanganui and Labour Govt. Minister
A few weeks after I was first elected to parliament as MP for Whanganui in November 1972, I was invited to a tangi at the Putiki marae near the estuary of the Whanganui River.
I have no recollection of who it was had died, but I still have a clear memory of a lesson I was given.
‘Shameful events of Parihaka
One of those present was the late Rangi Metekingi, a senior Whanganui river elder. My attention was first drawn to the women with white feathers in their hair, and I was given a brief account of the shameful events at Parihaka on and after 5 November 1881.
Then pointing behind me to the Whanganui River, Metekingi spoke of the Coal Mines Amendment Act passed in Parliament, he said, in the early hours of the morning in 1903.
This act had given ownership of the beds of navigable rivers, including the Wanganui to the Crown. No consultation had ever taken place, and the grief and anger were still keenly felt.
Local and district Maori, he said, would be looking to the new government to begin to rectify this and other wrongs of the past. The 1903 Act was finally repealed in 1991 but the Crown ownership of river beds was transferred to the Resource Management Act.
Māori not consulted
In earlier days, governments through the Ministry of Works had been able to build many dams and power stations on the country’s rivers, the Waikato in particular. There would have been Maori concerns and objections, but few vehicles to express them, and virtually none with any provision for any resolution.
Discussion of ownership of and rights over rivers has finally become a more public issue, with long standing Maori concerns finally being heard by a wider public.
These days water is rightly recognised as a hugely important and valuable asset. There is currently discussion, some of it heated, as to whether Maori or anyone else can own it.
Maybe not, but what about the right to use it, and the responsibilities of those doing so?
Some of the current New Zealand debate reflects our island state and lack of borders with any other country. Where rivers flow through more than one country, rights and responsibilities have long been and continue to be hotly argued, particularly in the Middle East and southern Africa.
It is all too easy but no longer credible for those who make the greatest use of water to argue that nobody owns it, end of story.
In today’s world of belated environmental and cultural awareness, that stance is no longer politically or environmentally sustainable.
Perhaps somebody in Wellington should have thought about that before work began on selling our power companies.