Water Levy Pure Common Sense

Those who dismissed Jacinda Ardern as little more than a pretty face fronting a tired old Labour Party got a wakeup call last week.  She delivered a neat straight left to the political chin of self-serving exploiters among National’s support base.  

She has proposed a levy on water extracted for commercial profit to help pay for the clean-up of our rapidly degrading waterways. Irrigation and water bottling are rightly seen as commercial exploiters of a resource owned in common by all New Zealanders and managed on their behalf by Government. Most other natural resources are managed in a similar manner. The regime will not cover stock water or domestic water and the details of the system will be developed in discussions with key stakeholders.

This is not a new idea and the debate on the ownership of freshwater has been surrounded by myth and guesswork and orchestrated mis-information for years.

The reaction, by some farming and irrigation interests, has been as predictable as they are ridiculous. Predictions that the levy would cripple agriculture, add to food prices and damage exports can be seen as little more than attempts to avoid controls and contributions which should have been applied years ago.

In some parts of the country, notably Manawatu and Canterbury, waterways have degraded at an alarming rate in recent years as a direct consequence of intensification of dairy farming. The Manawatu is now one of the most polluted rivers in New Zealand and Lake Ellesemere, near Christchurch, is in a state of ecological collapse from which it will probably never recover. 

The glaring reality is that we don’t need, and should not be asked tolerate, any further intensification of dairying or other forms of agriculture which require vast amounts of water, phosphate fertilisers and nitrogen.

We already produce enough agricultural commodities to supply an estimate 34 million people who don’t live here and the much vaunted farms jobs are among the lowest paid, particularly for migrant workers, in the country. 

Adding to the complexity and heat of the argument is the lack of reliable information on the demands of Maori. A Waitangi Tribunal ruling, in 2012, that Maori have traditional rights and interests in water guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi, created ill-informed outrage among those who never took the time to find out exactly what the finding means.

When considering the Maori claim, the tribunal found that those rights were equivalent to ownership under the treaty and that there was an expectation that the water would be shared with Pakeha settlers. The tribunal's recommendations are not binding on the government and can be ignored. 

The treaty, in both Maori and English, guaranteed that Maori could retain everything they owned unless they were willing to part with it. This was not a unique or particularly radical promise but was an assurance that existing property rights would be honoured and that the Crown would not assume ownership of anything. That right has existed in British law since the signing of the Magna Carter in 1215.

When the first Europeans arrived in the late 1700s two of the first commodities they traded for with Maori for were fire wood and fresh water, for which they paid trinkets, steel tools and, later, muskets. Ownership was clearly recognised and accepted by both parties to those transactions.

Irrigation companies can be said to own the water they take for free from rivers or, aquifers and on-sell it to farmers. They can keep that water if they choose or trade it for shares in the company or in almost any way that suits both parties. Bottled water in supermarkets is obviously owned for the purpose of sale; ownership is clearly established.

While the present Government claims that the water rights do not confer actual ownership of water, the question falls into the same category as the rights of high country leaseholders who don’t hold title to the land but have all the rights of owners in fee simple. Like water it is ownership in everything but name.     

The most important consideration is the difference between common or communal ownership of natural resources and commercial exploitation and how those differences impact on the rest of the community. 

It is safe to assume that freshwater, which can be claimed as belonging to Maori, Pakeha and the wider community equally, is an un-owned communal resource unless it is used for commercial exploitation. At that point the community should demand recognition of their rights by way of payment and meaningful restraints.