There has been a giant taniwha lurking around Waitangi all week.

While the issues of poverty and housing that drove so many Maori back to Labour last election can be readily addressed with cash;  water reform requires real political concessions.

That’s because, as Environment Minister David Parker told POLITIK, it will inevitably end in changed land use.

That concerns Maori because they have already argued successfully at the Waitangi Tribunal in 2012  that under the Treaty they have rights to water “akin to proprietorship”.

The previous Government simply kicked this can down the road but because Labour’s promise to clean up waterways will require some limitation on its production potential, then  (ultimately) some form of water allocation will be necessary.

The Prime Minister more or less acknowledged this at Waitangi after her meeting with the Iwi Leaders’ Forum.

But her spin was to emphasise the cleanup and to try and place the water allocation issue to one side.

“Water allocation is only part of the discussion,” she said.

“Water quality is an area where Iwi leaders are telling us they want to see momentum because ultimately we want all of our tamariki, the next generation to be able to swim in our rivers.”

Iwi Leaders chair, Wallace Rivers, agreed with that much.


“Our aim is better water quality,” he said.

He said he thought iwi leaders could reach agreement among themselves on allocation issues by May.

“We’ve got three months to work through to work through all of those issues and how we manage them,” he said.

But it clearly won’t easy.

“There are conflict concerns for ourselves,” he said.

“We are all asset holders, and we will be progressing towards positive outcomes on water reform which will force us to relook at some of the businesses we are in.”

Thus Maori get caught two ways.

On the one hand, they own dairy farms and one iwi, Ngai Tahu, has plans for a massive 6757-hectare intensive dairy development of 14,000 cows north of the Waimakariri River.

On the other, the moves announced over the weekend to fund the development of Maori owned land and to facilitate the use of land bound up in complex ownership issues, will create a demand for water since a lot of this land will be suited to dairying.

Parker will be willing to help with the Maori owned land issue but probably not the intensive development in Canterbury.

In fact, it will be questionable under what he is proposing whether it would be able to go ahead at all which is presumably why Rivers was talking about re-looking at some iwi businesses.

Parker is planning a suite of measures to clean up the waterways and has three advisory bodies in place assisting him. One represents Maori, another scientists and a third, farmers and local government.

The tracks they are already working on are becoming clear.

“Rule changes are likely to take the form of revisions to the National Policy Statement on freshwater management,” he told POLITIK.

.”Concepts that have been considered around that include where you have catchments that are at risk of getting worse still, we need stricter rules to stop them getting worse just to hold the line.

“And we are considering proposals such as those that were previously promoted by Judge Shepherd and his vision of the National Policy Statement.”

(Shepherd’s 2010 report essentially proposed  that the NPS direct Councils to include in their regional plans provisions to manage land use so that clean waterways targets could be achieved.)

In practical terms, Parker believes a key focus now is land intensification.

“That means  effectively stricter controls on greater intensification in areas which are at risk of degradation and  stronger regulation of the riskiest practices.”

Apart from intensification, Parker also singles out some winter grazing practices as a target for action.

Those big moves could hit a large South Island farming operation (like Ngai Tahu) hard.

But the challenge for smaller dairy farmers will be slightly different.

Parker is suggesting nutrient limits could be quickly imposed on them in a National Environmental Standard which is effectively a mandatory regulation.

But the problem here directly involves Maori because setting defined limits for how much nitrogenous nutrient could flow into a waterway would mean no additional land along the waterway could be developed as dairy farms.

That would conflict with the moves announced at Otamataea at the weekend to facilitate the development of Maori owned land.

Ultimately there will have to be some sacrifice by existing farmers of their limits to allow the Maori farmers to be accommodated.

It is a political nightmare; so far no Government has removed property rights from existing private owners to satisfy a Waitangi claim, but this time there appears to be no other way out.

Any solution is likely to require considerable patience from Maori since it is probable the transfer of the rights would take place over a long period of time.

The alternative would be a widespread Pakeha backlash.

“We’ve been explicit that we think that to reach a fair outcome from New Zealand you have to cater for the needs of underdeveloped land this is a particular problem for Maori who for reasons historical reasons of lack of capital and fractionalised land ownership disproportionately own the underdeveloped land,” said Parker.

“It would not be a fair outcome if because of the old first in first served role they were forever blocked from meeting the development aspirations and respect of their undeveloped land.

“So we’re trying to find a solution that creates headroom for them and other owners of underdeveloped land.“

Wallace Rivers

It is not going to be easy.

“I will not be able to please everyone,” Parker admits.

“There’s really only three ways to deal with Maori rights and interests.

“One is you could actually try and price the private use of large commercial uses of water and both create headroom because some people would give up some of the water rights that they don’t use and wouldn’t want to pay for what they don’t use.

“And you could also share the revenue which could be used to achieve fairness.

“However that one is off the agenda for this term because of our agreement with New Zealand First.

“The second way you can do it is through what we are doing which is to try and find a regulatory route through it that does fairness to the different interests.

“And the third is to just let it unfold through the courts and see where that happens.

“I personally don’t find that a very attractive option.

“And I don’t think a lot of other people do either.”  

But the devil will be in the detail, and already there are murmurs from within Maoridom that they think Parker is starting to get a bit heavy-handed with his approach.

The criticism focuses on his appointment of a Maori advisory body, Te Kahui Wai Maori, whose role, in effect, is to replace the Iwi Leaders’ Forum as the prime Maori voice on water reform.

The Forum has refused so far to appoint its two representatives to Te Kahui Wai Maori.

Rivers said they would look at that.

“We will just see whether that forum is a safe environment for us and that our [point of view will be discussed and heard.”

(Though of course as he later admitted during the press conference, that point of view has yet to be agreed on by all iwi.)

“There are different views, and they (the other members) will feel the same about their separate views so it’s just a matter of taking those issues and finding a base where we can all collectively work together.”

And Parker is also optimistic.

“I think there is there are at least a good proportion of Maori who  see this as an opportunity to actually resolve this vexed issue rather than just keep kicking the can down the road.”

The price of failure — either by denying Maori or by provoking a Pakeha backlash would be huge.

But equally, the political price of success might be equally huge. It would be a real reflection of the spirit of the Treaty that the Government is currently in Waitangi to commemorate.