John Key has been saying variants of this a lot lately:
“I’m the Government’s major spokesperson and I need to spell out the Government’s position, and the Government’s long held, and very strongly held, view is that nobody owns water.”
Key’s just being cute with semantics. What is the effective difference between owning water, and owning water rights? Because Key clearly does believe in owning and trading water rights. Here he is in 2007:
We need to investigate effective, efficient, and fair ways to allocate water-use rights while protecting the environment. We’re open to ideas about how best to do that, and tradable water rights may be an option.
The Nats were critical of the last Labour government for not introducing such rights, and have been signalling since the 2008 election that tradable water rights were coming. The Business Round Table and Brash’s 2025 Task Force have also pushed for them.
But never mind the words, look at the reality. Southland and Canterbury regions sell water rights to farmers. We already have water meters adding costs for tenants. As part of the Supercity process the Nats effectively privatised the supply of water in Auckland for the next 35 years. In short, it’s ludicrous to suggest that the Nats see water as anything other than a resource than can be traded, bought and sold. Refusing to call that “owning water” is just a semantic fig leaf.
Maori interests in such water rights are also well known. Here’s a very interesting piece from Agri-Business Week in 2009:
Fresh water management looms over tradeable rights
…Settling on an allocation model means trade-offs between generators and farmers. It also means deciding whether to have a commercial trading allocation system, which Maori would want a piece of. If rights can be bought and sold, will a new system prompt a gold rush for water? A Cabinet paper from Smith and Agriculture Minister David Carter says, “there is some public apprehension about price-based measures or anything that resembles privatisation of water.” The paper recommends central Govt take a greater role in water management policy over local bodies.
…Unlike the Auckland super city seats, the Govt has committed to a partnership with iwi over water management, which is likely to give Maori groups considerable sway over the basis for allocation. As the Cabinet paper notes: “The rights and interests of Maori in NZ’s freshwater resources remain undefined and unresolved. Discussions with iwi leaders may raise some challenging issues.”
Like it or not, water rights have been here for a long time, and Maori have a long standing claim. Whatever political game Key thinks he’s playing by bleating about no one owning water, the philosophy, policies and actions of his government give clear lie to his words.