Ardern: Water rights not top of mind at Iwi Chairs Forum

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says freshwater rights for Maori are not "in the too-hard basket" under her government. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Water ownership rights for Maori did not come up during a “warm but practical conversation” with the members of the Iwi Chairs Forum, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says.

Instead, child wellbeing, climate change and water quality were among the topics of discussion during Ardern’s first day at Waitangi on Friday.

Her meeting with the tribal leaders comes after government ministers were at times critical of the forum and its role last year.

In November, New Zealand First MP and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones said “Halley’s Comet will be back” before he would meet with the forum due to disputes over Maori freshwater rights, while Labour MP and Employment Minister Willie Jackson told Stuff in December the group “don’t represent my people”.

Forum adviser Willie Te Aho told Stuff last November that iwi would go to the Supreme Court if their rights and interests in freshwater were not addressed.

Speaking to media in Waitangi after the meeting, Ardern said ownership of freshwater did not come up as an issue, nor did the Government’s plan for a royalty on bottled water exports.

“It wasn’t raised in the meeting. Our position continues to be the same: everyone has a stake in water, but we acknowledge that particularly Maori do which I’ve no doubt we’ll keep having that conversation.”

Instead, she was “hugely heartened by the fact it was such a warm but practical conversation”, with shared interests including housing issues, water quality, climate change, and children’s wellbeing.

“We do want it to be practical work, work that leads to meaningful outcomes for Maori and ultimately better outcomes for New Zealand.”

Ardern did not believe the talk of Supreme Court action had been bluster, saying freshwater rights continued to be an issue.

“The message I took is this is the beginning for us, we’d sit down and see where we can take it but let’s not lose sight of the entire debate which is yes, about everyone’s interest in water, but water quality too.”

She denied she was putting the issue “in the too-hard basket”, but said she was just one part of the conversation.