The Government has had its officials working behind closed doors for some time now on proposals to put a price on water.
This is despite its loud opposition to Labour’s proposals to do exactly that.
The Ministry for Environment’s Technical Advisory Group’s (TAG) investigation into how to allocate water is supposed to complete the latest phase of its work in November – safely after the election.
The group is chaired by former Labour Minister, David Caygill, who didn’t want to comment last night on the progress the group is making.
And Environment Minister Nick Smith has not responded to a number of requests for comment.
But in March Prime Minister Bill English referred to the possibility of putting a price on bottled water for export to the group.
Since then nothing has been heard from them.
But their terms of reference specifically ask them to consider “pricing mechanisms to improve efficiency” in the allocation of water more generally.
However English has been sceptical about this arguing that it would be too hard because of the likelihood of Maori claims once a price was out on water thereby implying ownership.
The Waitangi Tribunal in the first phase of its conclusions from its Inquiry into water claims says Maori do have unrecognised or unsatisfied proprietary rights over water.
That’s why the Government is emphatic when it says no one owns water.
The Technical Advisory Group is supposed to have its recommendations ready for the Government in November.
The document says: “Final recommendations to incoming government. This may identify a single preferred option or set out a small set of refined options with advice on pros and cons for Ministers to consider.”
Labour’s Environment spokesperson, David Parker, is accusing the Government of “hiding” its work on water pricing and allocation.
He argues that they are headed towards tradable water rights whereby users would be able to buy and sell rights to take water.
But in the end, those rights impose a charge on water, albeit indirectly.
“And that’s what they are trying not to show their hand on before the election,” he told POLITIK.
“That’s what their hidden agenda is.
“Their hidden agenda is to create a traded capital good with no annual resource rental coming back to the public and to grandparent existing entitlements.”
Parker agues that existing water rights would simply be confirmed under what he thinks National will propose. Then the owners would be able to sell them if they wanted.
However, the TAG is charged with looking at these issues.
Their terms of reference say: “ There is a need to use resources more productively within environmental limits, including land that has potential to provide much greater benefit for local communities, such as iwi owned land that is underdeveloped.
“The current first-in first-served approach has been an easy and administratively efficient system when there is no scarcity. In fully allocated or over allocated catchments any new, higher value activities may have to rely on transfers (where feasible) to obtain access to fresh water or discharge allowances.
“This raises questions of equity, with new users paying for access to fresh water, and existing users profiting from their sale.”
It would seem logical that the TAG’s report in November, while it would canvas the tradable water rights issue, would also include a study of water royalties as a way of allocating water.
Meanwhile yesterday a survey showed that Nine out of ten New Zealanders believed that there should be a charge for extracting water from the environment for bottled water and similar industries.
The New Zealand Water Consumer Survey 2017, run by WaterNZ received nearly 5000 respondents and is the first nationwide examination of New Zealanders’ attitudes to a wide range of issues associated with water.
WaterNZ Water New Zealand is a national not-for-profit sector organisation comprising approximately 1500 corporate and individual members in New Zealand and overseas.
It says it is the principal voice for the water sector, focusing on the sustainable management and promotion of the water environment and encompassing the three classes of water: drinking water, waste and storm waters.
While the survey revealed that 89 percent of New Zealanders want to see a charge for water bottlers, more than three quarters (77 percent) believed there should be a cost when taking water from the environment for agriculture and horticulture.
Water New Zealand CEO John Pfahlert said the findings make it very clear that New Zealanders strongly believed that private businesses that profit from the use of water should pay for it.
He said that while the overwhelming support for charging water bottlers is understandable and that on the surface this strongly supports Labour’s plans for charging for water, it’s also important that there is wider discussion about water pricing and how to ensure efficient and fair use of our water resources.
“The survey shows that New Zealanders are generally in favour of paying for the water they use although it reveals many are unsure of what they currently pay for.
the problem is that National is doing its research into water allocation and pricing behind closed doors thus preventing whatever their preferred approach might be from being discussed during the election campaign.