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Michael Coote

Will water flow to Maori?

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Calls to make freshwater rights an election issue have intensified. Critical to the discussion are whose rights are meant, how such rights are defined and what costs and benefits arise.

Businesses should be alert to risks of getting soaked over their water usage and stand ready to sandbag their legal rights and economic interests.

They are being painted in some quarters as commercial interests owing compensatory water levies, arguably including even local water authorities.

Te Awaroa: 1000 Rivers’ patron Dame Anne Salmond is publicly advocating the NZ Maori Council’s National Freshwater Policy Framework proposal to create a waterways commission that holds all bodies of water in trust and charges for their use.

She writes, “The commission might receive royalties generated from the use of water, and hold them in a fund for the restoration of lakes, streams and rivers across the country.”

The real agenda for this approach is exposed where Dame Anne writes of how the proposed arrangement would “include recognition of the relationships between iwi and their ancestral rivers, springs and lakes, within a framework that protects ‘te mana o te wai’…”

Code for control

Embedded in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2014, te mana o te wai (literally, the water’s mana) is code for Maori control of freshwater resources through statutory obligations imposed on local councils.

It is a stepping stone to charging water levies.

The Maori Council’s plan is to create a perpetual revenue stream flowing into the pockets of Maori tribes in the form of royalties paid from levies charged nationwide on commercial water usage.

This objective is part of a thrust to impose a royalty economy of racial tithing across New Zealand’s natural resources to the benefit of Maori.

Another example is the infamous mana whakahono a rohe (MWR) imported into the Resource Legislation Amendment Act 2017, which forces democratically-elected local councils into co-administering the Resource Management Act in binding partnerships with Maori tribal authorities and even Maori extended families (hapu).

Three interest classes

The Maori Council’s water policy recognises and defines three classes of water interests: the natural environment interest, the general public interest and the Maori interest.

It wants a commission to allocate water rights, including automatic “commercial usage rights for water-related Maori purposes or renting out to other commercial users,” and to pay each interest from a commercial water usage levy, including funding “Maori to develop commercial operations utilising water.” 

Dame Salmond forefronts the natural environment interest, but also promotes the Maori interest, helping to normalise the idea of racial tithing.

The Maori interest in water rights is defined by the Maori Council as “both proprietary and cultural.”

The Maori Council is pursuing a long-running Waitangi Tribunal case to have Maori proprietary claims to fresh water recognised in law.

Essentially the Maori Council’s water levy proposal is one of artificially bundled interests, conflating Maori private claims for royalty remuneration with non-private and not necessarily economic needs of the natural environment and general public.

Muddying the water

It muddies the waters by encouraging people to think these potentially competing interests intrinsically all belong together of a piece and are equally valid and unobjectionable.

The three interests should be unbundled and debated separately on their merits, with participation open to all of society.

First, is there a justifiable rationale to impose water use levies on commercial or any other interests?

Second, if there is such a rationale, what form should levies take, how should they be administered and who should pay them?

Third, who should receive levy revenues?

Should they simply go into the government’s general revenue, or else be earmarked for specific purposes, such as payments to particular interests?

If for specific purposes, which ones and how to justify them?

In this manner, Maori, general public, natural environment and other interests could be weighed against each other, prioritised and then accepted or rejected.

This would be the truly democratic manner of proceeding, rather than simply wrapping up Maori rent-seeking within the feel-good camouflage of environmental worthy causes and expecting conservation-minded people to vote for the lot.

This article is published with the kind permission of the author – it was first published by the NBR.