Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on the likely Maori Council challenge over water rights

October 16th, 2012

If no one owns the water – as then government insists is the case – then what it is doing selling a significant stake in businesses where water rights are an essential part of their operation? Unfortunately, the Key government has refused to negotiate over that issue, and the problem now seems destined for the courts, at terrific expense to the taxpayer, and to the Maori Council. It is – or should be – an admission of failure by the government that all parties now need to resort to litigation in order to sort out the mess that has been created by the government’s partial asset sales programme, and over which it has refused to negotiate with the Maori Council or with any other Treaty partner above the level of local iwi. This isn’t merely a local issue though, is it?

And yet…that point will presumably be one of the many issues that the courts will need to formally resolve i.e. to what extent the Maori Council has standing to bring this case on behalf of all Maori. Not to mention that if no one owns something, how can one partner unilaterally act as if it does, by selling off something where access to this-thing-that-no-one-owns is understood to be a crucial part of the deal? That it has come down to this (financially ruinous) course of legal action is, of course, an indictment of this government, and of its refusal to engage with the Maori Council, or with the Maori King to find a solution. The legal costs will further erode the economic case for the partial asset sales, which were barely a break-even proposition (and by most calculations, a loss maker) even before the costs of this latest episode were factored in. Regardless, the government seems to have adopted a “ Bring It On” attitude when it comes to going to court, in order to get a mandate for a partial asset sales programme that will benefit only a few investors, while it inflicts a substantial loss on the vast majority of New Zealanders.

Let’s see….these partial asset sales involve selling down our stake in valuable assets in perpetuity, within a depressed market when the return to taxpayers is all but guaranteed to be poor, and when it is demonstrably cheaper to borrow the money to meet any pressing social and infrastructural needs. The selldowns will also mean higher power prices for everyone, in order to reward a relatively small number of investors, and to pay for the usual private sector inefficiencies, of outrageous remuneration and bonus packages.

Huge legal costs will also now be levied for unnecessary court action. The courts will be dragged into an emotionally charged situation as the referee – and they will be expected to meet the government’s rushed timetable – in order to resolve what is widely seen as a purely political issue. Oh, and there’s a national referendum looming on the asset sales process, one which the government already appears intent on ignoring. Tot it all up and the partial asset sales programme makes Think Big look like the wisdom of Solomon by comparison.

One can have real sympathy for the Maori Council as it meets this week to make a decision on whether to launch a legal challenge. Ironically, this legal challenge – when it is officially announced later this week – could do more for race relations in this country than anything since the hikoi of the mid 1970s. After all, the Council’s challenge has the potential to unify all New Zealanders against a high handed course of action that’s likely to inflict social and economic damage on New Zealand. In the short term though, we will officially be on the other side of the fence. As taxpayers, we will be forced to bankroll the legal defence of a shonky plan to unload our assets onto the sharemarket, purely for the benefit of an investor elite. Do you remember voting for this?


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    1. 7 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on the likely Maori Council challenge over water rights”

    2. By Greg on Oct 16, 2012 | Reply

      How then can anyone claim rights to the profits of the use of the water that has no owner. I agree the Government may own the infastructure therefore sell that.

    3. By peterlepaysan on Oct 16, 2012 | Reply

      If no one owns water I wonder what the reaction of hydro power generators would be to people utilising waters, detrimentally, upstream of their reservoirs?

      They own the dam, not the water.
      If they do not own the water they cannot do anything about people upstream of the dam doing what ever they like with the water.

      A quarry or mine could send wonderful slurry downstream doing great stuff for turbines and their intakes.

      It makes sense for upland farmers to store river and stream winter water flow for summer use.

      Just a thought. we may not own water, arguably, but sure as hell we all have accessibility rights to it (unless John Key has done a Wall Street deal on NZ water on one of his return trips home.

      If no one owns water how the hell did the government use water to drown Cromwell?

    4. By Maurice on Oct 16, 2012 | Reply

      Congratulation to Gordon Campbell for once again raising the “elephant in the room”. If no-one owns water how can the government sell hydro-generation to anyone else without the right to use the very thing that makes it all work being part of the deal. And he is right about unifying New Zealand too. If the Maori Council can stop this thing we will one day look back on them as the best thing that ever happened to this country.

    5. By jack on Oct 17, 2012 | Reply

      I have to agree with the government, although I am speaking of principle. Key has none. Just like the sun, wind, stars, static electricity in the strastosphere, etc. Water is a inherent right to have, nothing can live without it and Corporate iwi want to control it to their financial benefit. Arrogance and greed come to mind. I agree with Winston Peters that this is causing more racial tension.

    6. By John M on Oct 17, 2012 | Reply

      What is happening with this sell off beggars belief. That after 150 years and more of ofetn fraught relations with the indigenous people, the Treaty of Waitangi, the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples etc, that a government should be so negligent, so arrogant, so stupid as to think that they can sell off to private interests our commonly owned assets, the very fabric of this nation’s wealth and future, without any consideration as the legal and ethical rights of these indigenous people?? It’s totally bizarre. Never mind that the public in general have been treated with contempt, have we heard a single verifiable figure/amount/statistic/forecast/account or anything about this sale off that supports the government position??? In addition, this government that says we must reduce our indebtedness is proposing to spend more than $11 billion on new roads, and BORROW the money to pay for this??????????? Honestly, NZ is ruled by madmen. If any country thinks that its future prosperity in this 21st century is better served by building new roads and selling our strategic interest in our renewable energy infrastructure then that country is pathologically deluded.

    7. By Kat on Oct 18, 2012 | Reply

      “pathologically deluded”

      Yep, the voters voted for Key & co. Time to retune the grey matter folks!

    8. By Flying Kiwi on Oct 18, 2012 | Reply

      Technically Key is correct. No-one can ‘own’ water and more than you can ‘own’ the wind or electro-magnetic radiation utilised for broadcast communication.

      Realistically Key is being, ah, ‘disengenious’ in reducing the matter to such a very narrow point. What you can own is the right to utilise available water for a specific purpose.

      I don’t know who owns the river-bed on which Mighty River has built its dams but presumably it was either purchased from a previous owner or leased from them or the Crown, and with it came the right to utilise the water passing over that piece of (wet) land for any legal purpose and subject only to any statutory requirements with regard to contamination etc. and local authority water flow specifications. Such a right is a commercial asset like any other.

      The Maori claim can only be based on a moral argument – perhaps along the lines that it agreed to the original construction of the dam on the basis that it was utilising a common asset for the common good, which agreement would not have been forthcoming for the ‘enclosure’ of a common asset (a river) for private profit.

      Here in the Marlborough Sounds many residents are putting a lot of time any money into opposing a similar enclosure, of substantial areas of the ‘no-one owns the water’ Pelorus Sound – presently available to anyone to use for sport, recreation or just aesthetically enjoy – which King Salmon wants to enclose for fish farming for private profit.

      As they say – if it ain’t nailed down someone will try to steal it.

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