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Opinion: Why Key will benefit from the Tribunal debacle

Thursday 12 Jul 2012 12:21p.m.

Why Key will benefit from water stoush

Opinion by Political Reporter Patrick Gower

So John Key has been slammed for "dissing" the Waitangi Tribunal.

He's certainly rarked up many Maori and, by extension, the Maori Party.

But the truth is, it probably hasn't hurt him one little bit out in voter land - especially the bloke sometimes referred to as 'Joe Pakeha'.

Key is sure to know that plenty of these 'Joes' would be cheering him on when he said "the Tribunal isn't binding" and "Maori don't own water".

They are both statements he has been making for some time.

But the statements have what's known as a 'dog whistle' factor; coded language that hits at a certain audience.

We all know what that audience is - those who don't like 'preferential treatment' for Maori etc.

For the record, I’m sure Key didn’t rark up this nasty debate deliberately – yet he would be pleased to receive the resulting spin off.

Because whether you are for or against this kind of thing, everybody in New Zealand knows this 'race debate' simmers all too close to the surface.

I don't believe Key went out to deliberately dog whistle.

He was probably just a little bit loose.

He had no choice but to say the Government could ignore the Tribunal – and, as he says, that's a statement of fact.

It's a point he has actually been making publicly since this year's Waitangi Day dawn service, when the Maori Council claim first arose.

If the Tribunal does come back with some kind of ruling saying Maori have rights to water, the Government will ignore it.

It will have to if it wants to get its asset sales programme through on time, and if wants to prevent spooking investors worried about water claims. Because Maori rights to water can not be 'sorted out' overnight - it will take years and years.

There is no 'elegant solution' here.

Key and the Government will be planning to ignore the Tribunal - then beat any injunctions in court.

So he couldn't really sugar coat the 'ignore the Tribunal' issue.

But the fact is the bravado had a dog whistle benefit he was always going to pick up.

Key would have got a 'good on ya mate' reaction from it, appealing to the kind of National voter who doesn't like asset sales, but doesn't really like what they see as preferential treatment for Maori.

The kind of voter who didn't like the classroom size debacle, but quite liked John Key sticking up against Maori claiming to own water.

The reality is that Key doesn't have a lot to lose with his support base when standing up to the Harawiras/Donna Hall/Maanu Paul/Annette Sykes.

And rarking up goes both ways - Maanu Paul saying "Maori own water" was always going to get the talkback lines ringing.

To my mind it is an ugly and unfortunate part of New Zealand society that this kind of thing flares up like it does - but the reality is it is out there.

And once it starts, everybody heads back to their corner - witness Tariana Turia with the Tino Rangitiratanga beret on.

The Maori Party were certainly playing up to their core supporters too by threatening to walk out - so plenty of whistling goes on from both sides.

But the reality is, even though both sides have given battle cries, only one side can win.

Right now, that looks to be Key.

He will likely go through with ignoring the ruling, call the Maori Party's bluff (if he hasn't already) and continue to pick up the dog whistle benefits out in voter-land.

And the Maori Party will back down.

But that's just the politics.

The Courts are a different story, and the potential of an injunction could still derail the timing of the asset sales yet.

Still plenty of smoke on the water yet for John Key.

 
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