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Cool Heads Needed To Resolve Vexed Questions Around Water

Cool Heads Not Election Heat Needed To Resolve Vexed Questions Around Water

INSIGHTS ABOUT THE NEWS - Campaigning in the heat of an election campaign could guide the direction of one of the thornier policy issues politicians have been grappling with for years – water ownership and management.

As reported in the Trans Tasman Political Alert and its sister publication, the NZ Energy & Environment Business Alert, Labour’s proposal to impose a royalty on the commercial use of water has been attacked by National leader Bill English as derailing years of work to find a politically and economically sustainable resolution to the claim of Maori interest in water.

“A royalty implies ownership. That ownership will certainly be contested by iwi and the Govt has never asserted ownership in that way. I think the Labour has just bumbled into it.”

English believes the groundwork had been established to treat Maori claims as “highly localised.” With agreement about regional co-management, the PM argues it would be possible to move toward sorting out a system of water allocation.

The Land and Water Forum’s Technical Advisory Group has been working on allocation issues, which obviously should include pricing as an option, and English publicly kicked the water bottling levy issue to the group earlier this year. But English is very cautious and says Labour should tread with care.

“It’s pretty clear Labour have paid no attention. I think their attitude to it is reckless. We’ve worked hard to preserve the Crown’s position and very hard to respect Maori rights and interests.”

For decades Labour and National had stuck to the line no-one owned water while accepting Maori had an interest. It is a much-debated point both politically and legally.

National had ruled out a pan-Maori fisheries type settlement as unworkable. It is essentially a cap and trade mechanism with allocations based on use and Maori interests, with the Govt able to alter and limit use when demand on the resource is too high.

A pan-Maori settlement might sort out Labour’s desire to put a price on water and raise money from it, but it could be expensive and still not resolve allocation. This especially applies in areas where those with a current water right will want this to continue - for many it is a matter of survival.

National thinking on this is leaning toward is some sort of tradeable water right and resolving Maori interests by giving co-management rights over some water bodies and greater say for Maori in RMA processes. This would not necessarily set a price on water.

Both National and Labour’s approaches face a potential backlash from NZ First and likeminded voters who see concession to Maori interests as “race-based.”

NZ First seems to believe it is possible to charge for water, sort out allocation and not recognise any Maori interest. The political result would make the Foreshore and Seabed debate look like a polite chat over a cup of tea.

For analysis and further updates see this week’s edition of the Trans Tasman Political Alert

Trans Tasman’s sister publication, NZ Energy & Environment Business Alert, is a weekly source providing you with in-depth news, analysis and opinion on NZ’s energy and environment sectors.


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