Why the water debate is too hot to touch

Prime Minister Bill English is ducking the water issue - it's a hornets' nest he doesn't want to disturb before the election, writes Bernard Hickey

Anyone who thought the debate over the foreshore and seabed was fraught and set New Zealand's political landscape for more than a decade knows that any attempt to price water is politically explosive.

That's why Prime Minister Bill English was so wary this week of any quick reaction to the protests against exports of bottled water. He knows that once a price is put on water, it becomes an immediate flashpoint between iwi, farmers and everyone else over ownership rights under the Treaty of Waitangi.

He tried to kick an increasingly heated debate 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 would look at who would 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," he said ... "because water's been free and hasn't been owned by anybody."

If the politics of virtually free water for exporters is difficult, the blow-back 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 of the group's work.

"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.

English has been wary of this issue for some time, stretching back to court cases around the ownership of water used in power stations owned by SOEs the Government sold partial stakes in. English has been talking to the Iwi leaders forum about the issue for most of his time in Government.

"There's been five or six years of discussion with various Maori interests related to Tribunal claims going right back to the sale of the electricity companies when there was a High Court case about that, so it's been an ongoing discussion about Maori rights and interests and what those amount to," he said.

A change in tone.

English's comments on Monday 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 the can of worms that 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.

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