English tries to quarantine bottled water export debate

Bill English hopes to dampen down the bottled water debate until after the election. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Prime Minister Bill English has tried to kick an increasingly heated public debate about bottled water exports into touch until after the election by referring the issue to a technical advisory group at the Ministry for the Environment.

After a week of protests and revelations about foreign-owned water bottling exporters paying virtually nothing for pristine spring and aquifer water, English told his post-cabinet news conference on Monday the Government had asked the Ministry's water allocation advisory group to consider the issue of exporting water. He said the group was not expected to report back until late this year or early next year -- well after the election.

"We do accept there's growing public concern about it. That's why we want to refer it off to this group to look at what, if any, reasonable options there are," English said.

The group will look at who might charge for water, what they could charge and whether it could be done without establishing who owned the water.

"We're not saying it's too hard. We're just saying it's hard. Because it's a big shift for New Zealand, to say we're actually going to put a price on water," English said.

"Because it's a big shift for New Zealand to say we are actually going to put a price actually on water, because water's been free and hasn't been owned by anybody."

If the politics of virtually free water for exporters is difficult, the blowback on any Government that tries to establish water ownership and starts applying prices would be substantial. Once the principle of water ownership is established, the debate jumps quickly to Iwi ownership and Treaty rights, and whether owners of water permits such as irrigating dairy farmers, vineyards and orchards have to pay.

"It's bound to raise other issues," English said.

"The Maori rights and interests would be part of the discussion."

English pointed to how it had taken the Government seven years to announce a framework for water quality.

"It's always five times more complicated than you thought and there is always a wide diversity of interests in what happens. That's why it took seven years to get to be able to announce a quality framework, so you wouldn't want to underestimate the many issues that will arise in considering this particular issue," he said.

A change in tone

English's comments struck a contrasting tone to those of his close ally Nick Smith just last week. Smith ridiculed the potential for charging for bottled water exports as a solution to water shortages.

"We're not talking about one per cent or .1 per cent, we're talking about 0.00002 percent – it's about as silly as suggesting that we're going to solve our traffic problems by banning tricycles," he said last week.

Smith suggested a can of worms would be opened up by charging some and not others.

"To charge the water bottling plant for the water and not charge the soft drink manufacturer or the beer maker would just create even more anomalies," he said.

He didn't mention the dairy farmers or factories, but could just as easily have done so.