The Government’s move to direct a study of the pricing of water looks like political grandstanding as it tries to dodge a Waitangi claim for Maori control or even partial ownership of water.
Prime Minister, Bill English at first rejected the idea that a price could be put on water used for bottled water exports.
The matter arose last week when the “Bung the Bore” campaign brought a 15,700 petition to Parliament calling for a moratorium on all water exports …
The campaign had its origins last year in Ashburton as a challenge to the Ashburton District Council’s intention to sell a block of public land with a consent to bottle 40 billion litres of artesian water for export overseas by a Chinese-owned company.
Yesterday morning he told the AM show that it looked as if it would be “too hard” to put a price on New Zealand water.
“Right now, it is too hard. You want to be careful about rushing in and starting to charge people that historically no one’s owned and no one’s paid for,” he said.
But eight hours later, at his weekly post-Cabinet press conference he had a slightly different view.
Cabinet had decided that a letter should be sent to the Technical Advisory Group advising on water allocation (due to report after the election) asking them to include “the issues surrounding the export of water.”
The group was set up last May and is chaired by former Labour Cabinet Minister and deputy chair of ECann, David Caygill.
The group includes a Landcare economist, Dr Suzie Greenhalgh, who specialises in how to allocate natural resources.
Her presence would suggest the group was well equipped to handle the pricing of water question and that it may not find it “too hard”.
But as the Cabinet Paper setting up the group up last year suggested, the real issue that might make it “too hard” is likely to be Maori claims for control of water resources and possible compensation.
The paper refers to the Waitangi Tribunal case taken by the Maori Council in 2012 when the Government was proposing the partial privatisation of the electricity generating companies.
“In essence, the claimants argue that Maori have unsatisfied or unrecognised proprietary rights in water, which have a commercial aspect, and that they are prejudiced by Crown policies that refuse to recognise those rights or to compensate for the usurpation of those rights for commercial purposes,” the Tribunal concluded.
In making these claims, Maori do not claim sole or exclusive ownership of all flowing water today.
“They recognise and accept the rights of non-Maori to share in the use and benefits of New Zealand’s waters.”
The Tribunal did not conclude that Maori had exclusive rights to water but rather that they had “residual proprietary rights.”
“They seek recognition of their rights.
“Where those rights cannot be fully restored Maori seek compensation.”
What has happened subsequently has been that so long as water has been “free” Maori have not made any claims.
So yesterday English conceded that “Maori rights and interests” would be part of any discussion about ownership of water which might emerge from a study of how to put a price on it.
That’s why the Government has been so insistent that “no one owns the water”.
And that’s what complicates the pricing question.
Also complicating the situation politically is a lobby group called “Hobson’s Pledge” which oppose any form of preference for Maori and which is led by former National and ACT leader, Don Brash.
This group is campaigning in provincial New Zealand, and Dr Brash recently drew 200 to a meeting in Havelock North.
In Parliament ACT and NZ First oppose any preference for Maori but the Maori Party predictably does not and English has made it clear they are is his preferred coalition partner.
But last April, Gary Taylor, CEO of the Environmental Defence Society said it was s time for a serious discussion on putting a price on fresh water.
“It is important that people understand that pricing does not relate to ownership but puts a charge on using a public resource for private gain,” he said.
But English derscribed that as an assertion.
“You’ve yet to see whether that is actually the case.
“You might find that there’s other people who have a different view.”
Would those “other” people be Maori?
“Well, possibly, but the way you find out is by having a good look at it; you can’t get too far just making assumptions.”
National’s problem with water is that it is a key issue for many of its core voters who live in farming districts; others oppose any extension of Maori rights but at the same time it knows it will need the Maori Party after the next election.