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MP snubs foreshore legislation

17 October 2004

Maverick minister John Tamihere says he is no longer backing his government's controversial foreshore and seabed legislation.

It is a position that could prove fatal to Tamihere's already tenuous political future and could force the government into retreat on the crucial legislation.

The controversial minister already has his back to the wall over allegations concerning a golden handshake at Waipareira Trust.

His withdrawal of support for the foreshore and seabed legislation could be the final straw that forces Prime Minister Helen Clark to sack him from cabinet before an investigation is completed.

Tamihere's shock U-turn on the legislation wipes out any debt Clark may have owed him for his previous loyalty over the issue.

Tamihere told the Sunday Star-Times the day before the Waipareira allegations broke that he no longer supported the bill.

"It doesn't have my support in its present format," he said.

As a Cabinet minister Tamihere is bound by collective responsibility to support government legislation, and breaching this convention could lead to his dismissal, given his already perilous situation.

If Tamihere is sacked from cabinet he is likely to react by resigning from parliament, forcing a by-election in Tamaki Makaurau. If he did so, the government would lose its majority in parliament and would have to seek support from NZ First, the Greens or the Maori Party to stay in power.

Tamihere is not the only member of Labour's Maori caucus to be unhappy with the legislation, and a Tamihere-led rebellion could lead to the government failing to pass the bill when it comes back to parliament next month.

Tainui MP Nanaia Mahuta has already said she cannot guarantee her support for the bill and a further four Maori MPs Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia, Te Tai Tonga MP Mahara Okeroa, Waiariki MP Mita Ririnui and list MP Moana Mackey last week declined to state categorically that the bill had their support.

Te Tai Tokerau MP Dover Samuels, list MP Dave Hereora and Wairarapa MP Georgina Beyer said they supported the bill, but Samuels is likely to follow Tamihere, his close friend.

Tamihere had been hoping to wrangle for last-minute changes to the bill before it came back to parliament, but the latest controversy means he will instead be fighting for his own survival.

Opposing the foreshore legislation would give Tamihere a much better chance of fighting off a challenge from the Maori Party in a by-election.

Until now he has publicly defended the bill, despite considerable pressure from Maori to oppose it. Tamihere fronted up to the hikoi against the legislation when Clark dubbed the marchers "haters and wreckers" and refused to meet them.

If all or most of Labour's Maori MPs voted against the bill, Labour would need NZ First's 13 votes and United Future's eight to pass the legislation.

Negotiating such a deal would be extremely difficult because NZ First and United Future have demanded conflicting conditions in return for their support.

If the bill was defeated it would be a hugely embarrassing failure for the government, which has been dogged by the issue since the Appeal Court ruled that Maori could seek ownership of the foreshore and seabed.

Revelations over Tamihere's golden handshake emerged from an independent financial audit of Waipareira triggered by allegations that chief executive Reg Ratahi, chairman Eynon Delamere and chief financial officer Bruce Bryant committed the trust to loans worth millions of dollars and sold assets without board approval.

Tamihere, who had fallen out with Ratahi and board members, sought the audit, but may end up as a casualty of it.

Draft terms of reference for the inquiry into the allegations against Tamihere will be considered by cabinet tomorrow, but Acting Prime Minister Michael Cullen has said he would like a Queens Counsel to head the investigation.

Tamihere would not comment except to say he was confident the inquiry would clear him.

ACT leader Rodney Hide and NZ First leader Winston Peters both said Tamihere should be sacked.

Hide said Clark was just going through the motions of an inquiry to avoid a backlash from caucus members sympathetic to Tamihere.

He's got to go, said Hide. He has received $200,000 without paying tax and he won't say whether he has declared that income to the IRD. He has said publicly that he wouldn't accept a golden handshake, and he went ahead and accepted one - that alone falls well short of Clark's standards, but she doesn't want to do anything precipitous because she doesn't want to upset Tamihere and his supporters in caucus.

Helen Bain
Sunday Star Times

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