It's water, water everywhere

Water, water, everywhere — not a time to blink. A flood over politics, policy, farmers, generators, multinationals, iwi. Sometimes John Key looks as if he is pushing water uphill.
Last week’s spillway: the cabinet’s manoeuvre on the Waitangi Tribunal’s report; the Maori King’s summoning of a hui; the Maori Council’s musing on a court challenge; Ngati Kahungungu’s tabling of a claim for rivers and aquifers in its rohe; the Environment Court’s clearance of Manawatu region’s tough “one plan” to clean its river; reappointment of commissioners to run Canterbury’s water; another round on Rio Tinto’s Manapouri play.

Then for afters try Carbon News’ report that Hone Heke Foundation chair David Rankin is helping a “cohort of hapu” prepare a claim on wind used for electricity generation.

The Maori Council was able to wade into the flow because the cabinet, keen to sell down its water-guzzling electricity generators, initially omitted a Treaty of Waitangi clause from their new legislation. A quarter-century back the Maori Council took to court a case which resulted in such a clause being inserted in the state-owned enterprise legislation. That case bequeathed us Lord Cooke of Thorndon’s legal fiction of a “partnership” between the “Crown” and “Maori”.

The Treaty is actually with iwi, not Maori generally. The Maori Council, a government creation 50 years ago to speak for all Maori, is an anachronism now that iwi are stronger and have a place to stand in law. Hekia Parata tried to abolish the council in 2009. But in this round it did act with a number of smaller iwi which (with some cause) feel unrepresented by the iwi leadership group of major iwi bosses.

The Waitangi Tribunal’s ruling seemed to turn back-to-front the principle that article one, which transferred sovereignty, prevails over article two, which reserves to iwi management of taonga (including water).

It called for a national hui to set a framework for individual negotiations over water. The cabinet flatly rejected that and its other idea of super-shares for relevant iwi but is “consulting” “in good faith” with affected iwi to see if there is anything in the notion.

In his weekly “Key Notes” broadcast email on Friday, Key said the government “will proceed” with the 49 per cent selldowns and remains “firmly committed”. It has made the selldowns a core policy and needs the cash for capital investment in schools, hospitals and irrigation schemes (water again).

The Maori King’s initiative picks up where Key left off: a major hui. This could generate a framework or an alternative generalised deal which iwi then scrabble over or a deal for smaller iwi. Some talk of moving beyond simple co-governance and co-management to a role in determining access to water and maybe a price for that access.

But, as one close observer says of Waikato-Tainui, “the Pope has many divisions”. Iwi have different objectives and timetables, some completed, some well down the track, some just starting or still preparing. No iwi takes kindly to another telling it what to do. Iwi are like the United Nations: more “nation” than “united”.

And their interests can spread wide. Mighty River takes water in effect from the Whanganui River and around 20 tributaries of Lake Taupo which goes first through Genesis’s Tokaanu plant and down through the lake into the Waikato river. That’s a lot of iwi to pay, if there is to be a price or other compensation. (The argument for a rent or compensation is similar to what you would want if the government commandeered a room of your house to billet, say, students or police.)

Iwi have a presence in other watering holes, notably the Land and Water Forum (LAWF), due to report very soon on allocation, which includes options for pricing mechanisms. In its reports in 2010 and last April the forum was explicit in its support for a large iwi role in water strategy, policy, governance and management.

Ministers have been carving out wide wiggle room on the LAWF. Primary Industries Minister David Carter said last month ministers would make decisions, “hopefully with LAWF’s agreement” (not “in keeping with LAWF”).

But that might not be the end of LAWF. Labour and the Greens might well pick up its recommendations when next in power. They value the interest-group consensus it has built. Their positioning adds uncertainty to the generators’ share value.

Rio Tinto, by demanding talks with Meridian, and Norske Skog, possibly halving its electricity needs, have already built doubts. Transpower has said it could run a line to Manapouri to deliver its copious output to North Islanders hungry for price cuts.

Resolving complexity of the watery sort into settled policy is what governments are for. But right now Key might wish for some synchronised swimming.

The short-term politics for Key are simple: knocking Maori back is good focus group stuff. But longer-term National needs more Maori votes than it gets by itself. There is a bend or two to yet in this river.