Water a dangerous flashpoint for National and Labour

There are risks for both Labour and National in the debate over water royalties and water pollution. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Election 2017's debate over water royalties and water pollution could damage both Labour and National, and may prove the deciding factor in who Winston 'Kingmaker' Peters chooses to be the Government. Baz Macdonald reports.

Labour faces the risk of being labelled an arrogant and high taxing Government that repeats its disastrous Foreshore and Seabed errors of the early 2000s. Meanwhile, National could be labelled as an enabler of water-polluting intensification by 'Big Dairy' and a serial procrastinator over dealing with iwi claims on water.

All the while, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters wants to both tax water bottling exporters and leave existing water allocations unchanged. He is violently opposed to any suggestions of "race based" water allocation or pricing policies, which he has accused both Labour and National of pursuing. Whichever of the two main parties convinces Peters they are the least likely to do deals over water rights with iwi could get the nod and be 'crowned' as the Government.

The issue blew up earlier this month when Labour reiterated a long-held policy of collecting royalties for water, sparking extreme claims from the Government and farmers of a massive tax grab that crossed the rubicon of declaring water could be owned. National has been wary of declaring ownership while it was still negotiating with iwi over water rights and allocation. Labour was forced to outline it only planned royalties of around two cents per cubic metre ($500 million per year) and that it would hold a water roundtable in Government that addressed the levels of royalties and how they would be carved up between iwi and and councils.

However, that talk of a summit-style discussion over ownership and royalties led to attacks by both National and the Maori Party. National alleged Labour risked having to re-litigate previous treaty settlements. Meanwhile, the Maori Party accused Labour of arrogance reminiscent of when it imposed the Foreshore and Seabed Act over the protests of its own Maori MPs -- who subsequently broke away in a bitter dispute that led to the formation of the Maori Party.

Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell was quick to reiterate the Waitangi Tribunal's report had "already declared that Maori have proprietary rights" and that Labour's push for royalties before negotiations with was putting the cart before the horse.

"Labour just go about it arrogantly and believe ‘we can make a decision without anybody else - this is our policy’," Flavell told Newsroom.

“That is absolutely Foreshore and Seabed stuff, and we know where that ended up,” he said.

Flavell said Labour’s policy was not deal breaker in itself, but would be part of the bigger discussion on who they would ally with. He indicated that Maori being involved in decision-making was a large part of the party’s ethos and would be a part of the discussion about who the Maori Party could ally with.

National Leader Bill English raised fears that Labour's water royalties could either clash with existing settlements or force them to be renegotiated.

"A royalty implies ownership and that ownership will certainly been contested by iwi. Up to now, Government has never asserted ownership in that way," English said.

"It's another half thought through policy done on the fly because it looks politically attractive," he said.

"Their attitude is reckless. We've worked very hard to preserve the Crown's position. We've worked very hard to respect Maori rights and interests and we've been able to make major progress in lifting our environmental standards."

English was challenged about the Government's own consideration of charging for bottled water, which would be attractive to Peters. English acknowledged it was a difficult issue.

"We can't see a way you can apply a royalty that does not end up with a contest over the ownership of that water," he said.

"We're going through a process that treads very carefully and respectfully through that minefield. The Labour Party have blundered in, asserted ownership, so that's going to be contested. The other question is what their proposed coalition partner Winston Peters thinks about it."

'A plague on both your houses'

However, Peters' support of National's position is no sure thing, despite English's hopes.

Earlier this month Peters accused National of writing 'koha for consent' clauses in the Tuwharetoa Deed of Settlement signed on August 7, which Labour also supported. He was referring to clauses in the agreement that created a new statutory body called Te Kopua Kanapanapa, which would be a joint committee of the Waikato Regional Council and the Taupo District Council that would grant tradable water rights.

"This is as serious as it gets. The two old parties has National selling out and writing race-based water ownership into law whilst accusing Labour’s proposed water tax of being the trigger to justify it. The two old parties are constructing a nightmare for the New Zealand economy," Peters said.

So are settlements at risk?

The sensitivity of the issue was highlighted by the heated reaction to Attorney General Chris Finlayson's claim that Labour's royalties could force the renegotiation of existing settlements. Labour water spokesman David Parker accused Finlayson of making false and outrageous claims.

Many Maori leaders have since echoed Parker’s statement that finalised treaty settlements would be unaffected by the policy, including Flavell and head of the Maori Council, Sir Edward Durie.

The Iwi Leader’s Group for Freshwater technical lead Tina Porou said Finlayson’s claims were “absolutely untrue”.

“The fact is that the treaty settlements have never dealt with water specifically. In fact, if you look at Waikato’s claim they perfectly put aside the Waikato river so that they could work those issues through with the Crown," Porou told Newsroom.

“These are not reopening already closed treaty settlements, they are merely dealing with issues that have been on the table for decades," she said.

Porou said the Waitangi Tribunal had not given express ownership of water rights to any iwi, but had ruled that Maori have rights and interests over water and have been working to determine the details of those rights for decades.

“That is what the Iwi Leader’s Group has been working on with the Crown over the last close to 17 years."

But progress is slow

Progress has been slow on dealing with these issues, as they have been with all treaty negotiations. But the levy proposal may crystallise the need to address Maori rights around water.

Green Party Leader James Shaw told Newsroom their levy would resolve issues that the Government had avoided talking about for nine years.

Flavell believed National had been aware of issues around allocation and have just been working on it at a lower tier of government.

“National have been at it, but not at the deepest level of the whole discussion," he said.

Porou said the issue has been side-lined because of the intense politics around treaty negotiations.

One complication is that ownership is not a concept that fits well within the Maori culture. Porou said it was more fitting to describe a resource owning the Maori than it is the Maori owning it.

“No Maori person is asking for preferential treatment. What we are asking for is equal access to a resource that currently is locked up in single users," she said.

New Zealand’s “first in, first served” approach to resource management had overburdened many resources and led to many, including Maori, being locked out from using a resource, both personally and for business, Porou said.

“If we weren’t in first, and given that a lot of our land was confiscated it has taken us some years to catch up, now that we have caught up we can’t get access to water because it is locked up by those who had first try of the water resource and have essentially kept it."

Money not the big issue

However, Porou was not confident Labour’s water proposal would address the problems adequately.

“A royalty is probably a blunt instrument. We’re not saying that it isn’t an option, but it certainly doesn’t address the full suite of complex issues that the water system has to have changed over," she said.

“It’s not as simple as just saying ‘Let’s charge a royalty and the water issue will be fixed’. That doesn’t effect quality, which is a big part of the issue.”

Porou talked a road trip she took to talk with 27 iwi about water issues.

“I thought I was going to be talking about allocation, but what I was actually talking about was the quality of the water and that they couldn’t get good access to drinking water.”

“For example, in Muriwai they have 53 households. The source of the Gisborne water comes from the Arai river and is piped to Gisborne from the township. They watch their water being shipped into Gisborne and then last summer they paid $22,000 to buy their drinking water into Muriwai, because they weren’t able to get enough for themselves.”