Newsroom Pro's 8 things at 8am: Water fights, infrastructure pressures and tougher times for real estate agents

The grassroots led debate over water is turning cloudier and more toxic for the Government. Photo: Getty Images

In today's email, we look at the bubbling up of the water debate, detail the increasing pressure on the Government to help fund tourism infrastructure, and reveal how life is about to get tougher for real estate agents thanks to new legislation and new technology.

1. Water, water everywhere...

The water debate is turning cloudier and more toxic for the Government as it heads towards the election.

Protests up and down the country about the sales of bottled water overseas by foreign-owned companies led both OneNews and Newshub last night. There were 21 rallies outside Regional Councils and a petition signed by 15,000 people was presented to Labour's Water Spokesman David Parker.

Grassroots protestors are angry that the bottlers are paying virtually nothing for the water and exporting it at time when there are water restrictions and wider concerns about water quality, often in different places, but still...

Local protests such as the 'Bung the Bore' campaign in Ashburton have metastasized into protests over other water bottling plants such as the one over an application by a Chinese company to buy access to the Otakiri Springs operation in the Bay of Plenty near Edgecumbe. This operation pays just $2,003 a year for access to 700,000 litres a day of water.

"We're subsidising them to make a profit," Whakatane District Councillor Mike van der Boom said in this Isobel Ewing report for Newshub.

Prime Minister Bill English and Environment Minister Nick Smith might have hoped that the Government's big 90 percent swimmability target announcement would win it a few blue-green votes and parked the water debate ahead of the election.

Instead, the debate over goalpost-shifting of the target simply fired up existing anger about water quality and access more generally.

Protests over the sale of water through overseas-owned bottlers is adding some toxicity to the mix. That creates a pincer movement across the spectrum from the green left to the nationalist right of Winston Peters, who has leapt on this story.

2. But it's only 0.000002 percent...

The Government's sensitivity to the reaction was up in lights by 9.20 pm last night with a plaintive release from Smith that said the bottled water debate "missed the mark."

He pointed out that the 8.7 million litres of bottled exports per year represented just 0.000002 percent of the total water resource.

But the real sensitivity is around charging for water, given so many farmers get free access in many cases and a debate over charging opens up the thorny prospect of water ownership and rights under the Treaty of Waitangi.

"There is a real fairness problem with charging bottled water for export and not other water users," Smith said.

Watch this space ahead of the election because the contest over water touches on some of the hottest buttons in the electorate around environmental quality, the often-derided but still internationally-promoted 100 percent pure label, Treaty rights over water and the foreign ownership debate.

3. And it's not just protesters...

Activists and central Government politicians are not the only ones focused on water quality and costs.

Local Government New Zealand came out yesterday and launched its Water 2050 review of water policy and water infrastructure, including the issues of quality and quantity, access and allocation, and the cost and affordability of infrastructure.

Councils are continually frustrated that central Government keeps setting higher and higher water quality standards, but force Councils to use rates revenues and debt to pay for the expensive infrastructure to meet those standards. Ratepayers blame councils for failures such as the Havelock North water contamination, but also vote in Mayors and councillors who are focused on keeping rates low.

Meanwhile Wellington gets to keep all GST and income tax revenues from those regions and then blames Councils for failing to meet those targets or deal with the local conflicts over access to that water. The experience over Ecan, where commissioners were appointed, is a salutary lesson.

LGNZ President Lawrence Yule announced a symposium would be held in May.

4. Infrastructure pressures all around

LGNZ also applied pressure yesterday on the Government over the need to help fund local tourism infrastructure.

It unveiled the results of a survey of Councils showing they had 680 infrastructure projects costing $1.38 billion that were needed to cope with an influx of tourists that is set to be the same as the 4.8 million population within a few years.

The same problem of central Government collecting the revenues and local Government picking up the cost cropped up.

LGNZ is pushing for some sort of GST share, and is working with the Tourism industry for either a bed tax or a visitor levy to help fund the Infrastructure. It will be a topic of debate in the current Budget round.

Yule estimated the directly measurable increase in GST receipts from the tourism boom over the last year has been $550 million.

5. Auctioning off real estate agents

It's a tough(er) life being a real estate agent these days with falling sales volumes, more regulation and pickier customers.

Real estate agents will have to work harder for their money once a second round of money laundering rules pass through parliament and include real estate agents, solicitors and accountants in the net that previously only included bankers and fund managers.

Justice Minister Amy Adams tabled The Anti-Money Laundering and Countering of Financing of Terrorism Amendment bill in Parliament this week. Shunted into Parliament earlier than the Government originally wanted because of the Panama Papers saga, the legislation will cost agents, accountants, solicitors and the rest $800 million to $1.1 billion in extra compliance costs over 10 years. That's less than initial expectations of $1.6 billion.

And life is about to get even tougher.

Treasury analyst Andreas Heuser and medical doctor Henry Milne are today launching AgentAuction, a site that allows home sellers to auction off their property to the agent willing to offer the best deal in terms of commission. The online site allows vendors to select three agents from a performance-ranked list and AgentAuction selects two more. Those agents are then sent anonymised details and invited to bid for the best commission deal.

That $1.6 billion is relevant here too. Heuser points to an estimate that real estate commissions cost $1.6 billion a year. AgentAuction will receive five percent of the agent's commission.

Heuser and his partners built the website while he was on parental leave and he plans to come back to Treasury.

"Some people go on golf holidays in their spare time. I built this website," he told me.

6. Food for thought

Google and Facebook now control 60 percent of the US$83 billion a year digital advertising market in the United States. That's a duopoly that is only going to get stronger, the FT reports.

7. Passed, almost.

Nick Smith could smile about one this last night.

His often-delayed and tinkered-with Resource Legislation Amendment Bill passed its second reading last night.

8. RIP Cath Kelly

Cath Kelly, a trade unionist and historian, died early yesterday at the age of 91. She was the mother of Helen Kelly, who also died this year, and wife of trade unionist Pat Kelly. Here's a tribute from the Labour History Project that Trevor Mallard sent around yesterday.