Wa­ter is­sue strains po­lit­i­cal ties

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION/NEWS -

How long a po­lit­i­cal is­sue stays in the head­lines de­pends a lot on whether Par­lia­ment is in ses­sion at the time.

Un­for­tu­nately for Prime Min­is­ter John Key, the re­cent par­lia­men­tary re­cess meant there was no ready es­cape or di­ver­sion avail­able when con­tro­versy erupted last week over who holds the own­er­ship rights to the wa­ter be­ing used by the very same state en­ergy com­pa­nies that he is about to put on the auc­tion block.

The is­sue dom­i­nated the news agenda for well over a week, which is an eter­nity in the nor­mal cy­cle of po­lit­i­cal spin.

The whole ker­fuf­fle was trig­gered by Key’s ob­ser­va­tion that his gov­ern­ment was un­der no obli­ga­tion to abide by the Wai­tangi Tri­bunal’s rul­ings on wa­ter rights.

Prob­a­bly, this in­no­cent state­ment of fact was in­tended to re­as­sure any ner­vous for­eign in­vestors wait­ing in the wings.

Given the way Key ex­pressed him­self, how­ever, the im­pli­ca­tion was that the par­tial as­set sales would go ahead re­gard­less of what the Wai­tangi Tri­bunal thought about it, one way or the other.

The sense of dis­re­spect put the Maori Party on the spot, as an ap­par­ent ac­com­plice.

There­fore, Key has since needed to of­fer a few ex­pres­sions of hum­bled re­spect, while the Maori Party has needed to be seen as the staunch de­fender of the tri­bunal’s mana – hope­fully, with­out this be­lated dis­play of sen­si­tiv­ity get­ting in the way of the busi­ness at hand.

Na­tional clearly thought it could flan­nel its way through any of the po­ten­tial treaty prob­lems to do with wa­ter rights, and that says quite a lot about how cap­tive it re­gards the Maori Party as be­ing to the coali­tion, and to what­ever Na­tional chooses to do.

As an aside, the sit­u­a­tion also un­der­lines the tac­ti­cal mis­take Maori Party co- leader Tar­i­ana Turia has made in putting all of the Maori Party’s eggs into the one Whanau Ora bas­ket.

She now ap­pears to be a cap­tive of John Key, even more vis­i­bly than she was to He­len Clark. (Sec­ond marriages tend to break down for the same old rea­sons.)

A break with Na­tional still seems in­evitable, even­tu­ally.

If the prox­im­ity to Na­tional is prov­ing dif­fi­cult for Turia to man­age now, just wait un­til her Maori con­stituents be­gin to feel the full fall­out from as­set sales and wel­fare re­form.

The wa­ter rights is­sue may yet prove to be the deal breaker, given that any bill for com­pen­sa­tion fi­nally ad­vo­cated by the tri­bunal would not be a neg­li­gi­ble one.

If the new own­ers of the state en­ergy as­sets do have to pay for the rights to use wa­ter, those costs will be re­cov­ered from con­sumers, thus turn­ing an al­ready un­pop­u­lar pol­icy into po­lit­i­cal poi­son.

Key has dif­fer­ent suit­ors to please. To prospec­tive in­vestors in the state as­sets, he has to be able to guar­an­tee that there will be no im­ped­i­ments when it comes to the busi­ness of ex­tract­ing prof­its.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, he has to con­vince vot­ers that this is (a) a good deal and that (b) he knows what he’s do­ing. On both counts, he has some lost ground to make up.

The own­er­ship sta­tus of wa­ter is cru­cial to the func­tion­ing of these as­sets – we’re talk­ing about hy­dro power, right? Re­ally, how hard was it to fore­see that this could pose a prob­lem, fur­ther down the track?

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