Labour’s water tax plan dragged into a Treaty fight

Labour's plan for water royalties was initially attacked on economic grounds. Now National, New Zealand First and Māori Party have turned it into fight over Treaty issues. Bernard Hickey reports.

National has ramped up its attack on Labour's water royalties policy yesterday, accusing Labour of stumbling into a Treaty settlements minefield in a faint echo of the Foreshore and Seabed debacle.

Attorney General Chris Finlayson launched the broadside with a claim that Labour's policy would force the reopening of previous settlements, although this was immediately challenged by the policy's architect, David Parker, who said previous agreements specifically exempted water.

"It opens a complete Pandora's Box. I'd like to know if it is Labour Party policy that, after all the work we've done -- both political parties over 25 years -- are they proposing to re-open treaty settlements so that this matter can be looked at?," Finlayson told the Herald.

Prime Minister Bill English followed it up in his final post-cabinet news conference before the election, saying Labour had stumbled into an area that could cause problems with settlements, although he did not repeat Finlayson's comment about re-opening settlements.

"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. He 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."

'It's just scaremongering'

Labour's water spokesman David Parker responded to Finlayson's comments with an attack of his own on the view that treaty settlements would need to be reopened.

He described the comments as scaremongering.

“First, they made false and outrageous claims about price increases and, then, Chris Finlayson falsely alleged this will reopen full and final Treaty settlements. He is wrong, as Sir Edward Durie - head of the Maori Council, and whose former roles include High Court judge and Chair of the Waitangi Tribunal - has said," he said.

"Mr Finlayson knows the settlements with iwi include an express clause stating that freshwater claims are unresolved," Parker said.

"The current Ngati Tuwharetoa settlement currently before Parliament Deed of Settlement expressly states does not affect any rights of iwi and hapu in relation to water in clauses 4.17 to 4.20. Mr Finlayson also knows the settlements with other iwi – including Ngai Tahu and Tainui – are the same. Each includes a similar clause." he said.

English challenged the comment about Ngai Tahu's agreement in the news conference.

Winston chimes in too

As if to emphasise the sensitivity and heat in the issue, New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters chimed in with his own attacks on both National and Labour with a release titled: "National backs race-based water taxes."

Peters cited clauses in the Tuwharetoa agreement that he said represented a system of 'koha for consents'. The agreement sets up a statutory body that would work with the Waikato Regional Council and the Taupo Regional Council to jointly manage the catchment.

The clauses also refer to the creation of market-based systems for trading water allocations, but not to the creation of royalties.

Peters described it as a secret deal by National that was as bad as Labour's 'water tax'.

"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," he said.

"New Zealand First cannot and will not support more racial separatism and more expensive food and power prices from either party."

What had appeared a simple attempt to raise funds to pay for waterway cleanups has turned into a full-on debate about treaty rights and 'racial separatism.'

It's safe to add water to housing and migration as three of the hottest topics in the election campaign.

Stark reminder for Maori Party

Maori Party Co-Leader Te Ururoa Flavell also commented on Labour's plan, telling Stuff the plan was a "stark reminder to our people that history will repeat itself under a Labour-led government." The Maori Party was formed out of the wreckage of Labour's Foreshore and Seabed Act and it has been wedded to National ever since.

Maori had appeared to be shifting towards being open about a possible deal with Labour after this election, but the latest controversy may make that harder.

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