A challenge to the Government's partial privatisation of Mighty River Power has started in the High Court and immediately faced strong questioning from presiding judge Justice Ronald Young.
Appearing for the Waikato River and Dams Claims Trust and the Pouakani Claims Trust, Helen Cull QC argued that Maori claims to water and land rights could not be adequately protected once MRP was removed from the State-Owned Enterprises Act and placed under new law covering the so-called mixed ownership model (MOM) companies.
The Government wants to sell up to 49 percent of MRP and two other state-owned electricity companies, but plans to mount the MRP sale in 2012 were derailed by objections originally brought by the Maori Council.
The council is due to make its submissions tomorrow, before crown lawyers respond in proceedings that are expected to go to appeal, irrespective of the outcome.
Ms Cull argued legislation covering MOM companies and purporting to protect Maori interests in freshwater was less complete than SOE Act protections and that the partially privatised company would be commercially motivated to oppose claims lodged under the Treaty of Waitangi.
However, Justice Young said he could not understand the argument, given that the legislation explicitly assures Maori that the Crown would continue to be liable for settlement of such claims.
"You are really saying Parliament isn't sovereign, that it is subject to the commercial interests of people involved with MRP" he said at one point. Parliament changed the operating environment for companies "all the time".
He discouraged Ms Cull from pursuing evidence of difficulties being experienced by some applicants to lodge such claims, saying that was not relevant.
"If the statute says it's protected, it's protected," said Justice Young. The reassurance about the ability to continue pursuing Treaty of Waitangi claims was in the MOM legislation.
"Shareholders can't object. They know the statute exists."