The Wai 2601 Claimants, comprising a number of longstanding New Zealand Maori Council members led by Mr Maanu Paul, and one of the two lead claimants in the National Freshwater and Geothermal Inquiry, are exultant with the Waitangi Tribunal's Stage Two Report.
Mr Paul, and Mr Rihari Dargaville, were two of the original claimants. In 2016 and 2017 they became unhappy with the direction that their claim was being taken, and so in 2017, they severed their claims from those led by Sir Edward Durie and Donna Hall, to become the Wai 2601 Claimants.
The reason for the Wai 2601 Claimants' departure was that they did not agree with the view that was being advocated. They did not accept that Maori only had some vague "residual" rights because the public’s interest in water had somehow subsumed Maori property rights. Mr Paul and his group were firmly of the view that Maori always owned the water and still do own their water – ko au te wai, ko te wai ko au. The Wai 2601 Claimants case centered firmly on the proposition that under the common law doctrine of native title, Maori proprietary rights in water had not in any way been extinguished or relinquished and therefore remained extant.
In its Stage Two Report, the Tribunal concluded that it agreed with the Wai 2601 Claimants’ position.
"We feel absolutely vindicated", said Mr Paul. "Our claimant group had a very strong sense that Maori have always owned and controlled the water, and no legislation had ever appropriated our rights of ownership. The Tribunal has now agreed with us.”
The Tribunal, at the end of their Report stated:
“Finally, we note that it may now be necessary for a test case to be brought before the courts on whether native title in fresh water (as a component of an indivisible freshwater taonga) exists as a matter of New Zealand common law and has not been extinguished. We have given our view but our jurisdiction is recommendatory only, and the question has not been decided definitely by the courts.”
Mr Paul said, “We have now instructed our lawyers and a QC to proceed with such a test case.”
The Wai 2601 Claimants also made submissions that a Wai Maori Commission should be established. That recommendation was also taken up by the Tribunal.
"We are delighted with the recommendations of the Tribunal that an independent national body should be established. As one of the original New Zealand Maori Council claimants, we will be engaging with the government to ensure the Tribunal's recommendations are implemented" said Mr Paul. “It is now beyond doubt that, due to successive government’s mismanagement of our water, it is in a dire state. Changes to way in which we manage this valuable resource are well overdue.”