The Green Party has been accused of collecting signatures from foreigners and children to make up numbers in an attempt to force a referendum on asset sales.
The Maori Council yesterday failed in its bid to halt the partial sale of Mighty River Power, the Supreme Court ruling that selling shares in the power company wouldn't impair Maori interests in water.
The Opposition has backed an attempt to collect the 310,000 signatures required to force a nationwide referendum on the issue. Earlier this month they said they had nearly 400,000, collecting well beyond the target as it was likely a significant number would be ruled invalid.
Speaking on Firstline this morning, State-Owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall said it's not truly a citizens-initiated referendum, and the result wouldn't matter anyway.
"Let's be clear about this referendum – it's not a citizens-initiated referendum, it's a Parliamentary-initiated referendum," says Mr Ryall.
"It has citizens, it has overseas visitors, it has children. This was a Green Party-funded, taxpayer-funded signature collection process. The Green Party paid staff members to go out there and collect signatures.
"They've got to prove they've got the right number of signatures, there's up to a year before the referendum happens. The real referendum on this was the 2011 general election. We campaigned on it, we made it clear and we've got a mandate."
Maori Council lawyer Felix Geiringer said yesterday's court ruling was "very helpful", in spite of the loss.
"The decision not to grant an injunction to the asset sales was based on the Crown turning up to the court and making a series of undertakings that it would in fact be progressing these other issues, these other methods of protecting water rights."
Mr Geiringer says during the court battle, the Government abandoned the idea that water belongs to nobody, and now recognise Maori potentially have a legitimate claim.
"The Crown's position before the hearing was that nobody owns the water, there were no Maori interests that needed protecting, and that was the end of the story. And what we got out of the Crown in the court was the fact that this idea that nobody owns the water – they've abandoned that… They recognised that Maori did have interest to water, and they gave commitments to the court to do everything they could to recognise those, notwithstanding the added difficulties that were going to be there because of the sale. And it was that the Supreme Court took into account in deciding not to block the sale."
Mr Ryall disputes this view however, saying the Government hasn't changed its view that no one owns the water.
"The position hasn't changed – the Government's always been very clear that no one owns the water. But we do recognise that Maori do have interests with respect to water, and over the years we've been acknowledging that with some of the treaty settlements."
Mr Ryall also says it's a good time to sell, despite flat electricity demand and serious financial woes at Solid Energy.
"While we're on the downside with Solid Energy, what we do know is that the New Zealand share market has rallied about 20 percent in the last six months, so we're moving Mighty River Power into quite a higher share market than there was previously," says Mr Ryall.
"But the reason why this is all so important is it's part of the Government's wider economic plan to control debt, take these sales proceeds, put them in the future investment fund, earmarked for schools, roads, hospitals, important social infrastructure. It's part of the wider plan, and that's why it's so important we got this Supreme Court decision out of the way, and now we can get on with the business."
The Supreme Court may have left the door open for Maori claims on water – such as the Waikato River, an essential part of Mighty River Power's electricity generation network – but Mr Ryall says it won't affect the price the Government will be able to command when it floats the company, which could happen before the Budget in May.
"I think here in New Zealand we're very used to dealing with these issues about Maori claims and demands on certain environmental issues, and that'll be factored in," says Mr Ryall.
"Here in New Zealand we understand these issues. I think the market understands these issues and I don't think it's an impediment at all."
Cabinet will decide its next step on Monday, and Prime Minister John Key will make an announcement that afternoon.
"We're ready to go – we've been ready for quite some time," says Mr Ryall.