The chances of the Government being able to clean up rivers have become even more problematic with a hardline stance now being adopted by the Greens.
Greens co-leader Marama Davidson in a radio interview on “The Country” last week said that the argument that everybody owned water conflicted with the Treaty of Waitangi.
This is in contrast to arguments put by Environment Minister David Parker who said last week that no one owned the water.
Parker announced a week ago that the Government was forming a new Maori group, Kahui Wai, which would incorporate Iwi / hapu and Pan Māori organisations; Māori Incorporations and other Māori Industry; Māori interest groups and academics; Natural resource planning; and Mātauranga Māori.
In some ways the group replaces the previous talks going on within the land and Water Forum and the last Government’s negotiations with the Iwi Leaders’ Forum over Maori claims to water but with a broader group.
However, that doesn’t mean the previous issues have gone away.
To add complexity to the debate, NZ First Leader, Winston Peters, has previously made it clear he opposes what he has called race-based solutions to water.
“Water is not a race-based matter,” he said on TVOne’s “Q+A” during the election campaign.
“If you believe in God, it is God-given; if you are a pagan, it is a gift of nature.”
Last night he referred POLITIK to the coalition agreement on questions about water.
But all it says is:
• No resource rentals for water in this term of Parliament.
• Introduce a royalty on exports of bottled water.
• Higher water quality standards for urban and rural using measurements which take into account seasonal differences
The agreement does not explicitly address the issues raised by Davidson in the radio interview and it is not clear how far Peters would be prepared to go in supporting a compromise with Maori over water rights.
Davidson said the purpose of the Crown- Maori talks about water is to rectify injustices which have happened over many generations.
At the heart of the talks is a Government proposal to set nitrate discharge limits for farms so that waterways start to get cleaned up.
But as Environment Minister David Parker has pointed out, this proposal discriminates against Maori landowners who hold undeveloped land which has no record of discharging nitrate.
To develop that land requires that they be able to discharge some nitrates.
This raises questions about how discharge rights should be allocated which fringes into debates about water “ownership”.
Davidson was asked her view on whether water rights were owned by everybody, “not one particular group.”
“There is clear disagreement and discomfort with the line that water belongs to everybody,” he said.
“What it does is that it denies a Tiriti principle for Maori to be able to maintain kaitiaki and tino rangatiratanga over their water rights.
“And so this (the talks) is an attempt to get through that issues rather than kick the can down the road.”
Davidson said that the question was how did we allow Maori to be able to develop and use their land.
Asked if she was talking about taking existing water right off users and reallocating, she said: “That is what is up for discussion.”
“It is not going to be easy,” she said.
“How do we balance out the current water rights and permit allocations with the fact that there has been a massive injustice for generations of water allocation.”
She said it was the Crown who had driven a lot of the unjust allocation.
Strictly speaking, the current talks are not so much about water allocation as the allocation of “rights to pollute”.
Given that both the Government and the Greens favour ensuring all out freshwater waterways are swimmable, there is clearly a need for a reduction in nitrates flowing into them.
So ultimately in some parts of the country, the Government (or more probably, local authorities) are going to be allocating a reduced quantity of rights to discharge nitrates.
The addition of Maori land holdings to this could further reduce the allocation to existing farmers.
This has all the potential to blow up into a major political clash.
Parker has been very careful to steer a middle path through this debate.
In the email, he said ownership was not the same as rights and interests.
“The previous Government and this Government have asserted that no-one owns water and that it belongs to everyone,” he said.
But Davidson said the Greens rejected this.
“Our independent and longstanding position has been that we reject the bottom line that everybody owns water.”
What Parker does concede is that Maori have rights and interests in water.
National’s Maori Development spokesperson, Nuk Korako, also set out his party’s position last week.
“On one side you have the Greens promising the Crown will engage robustly on Māori water rights and Labour is giving the appearance it’s doing something about Māori rights to water by establishing this forum,” he said.
“Meanwhile you’ve got NZ First stating unequivocally that it will not sanction Māori ownership of water.
“The Government needs to come clean to Māori.
“By raising false expectations, Labour is facing a new foreshore and seabed fiasco.”
Korako said that National’s policy was that nobody owned the water.
“Nor is a national settlement like that achieved on fisheries appropriate.
“Freshwater issues, such as nutrients, sediment, E.coli and allocation vary so significantly around the country that solutions have to be worked out on a catchment by catchment basis.”
Ironically the positions of Labour and National now seem to be closer than the positions of Labour with its Government partners, NZ First and the Greens.
That is a measure of how complex this issue is and how potentially politically dangerous it is for Labour.