Andrew Little: Putting a charge on water exports is a 'real issue' for Kiwis
Labour wants to introduce a charge on water exports and says the Government is "kicking the can down the road" by not addressing it before the election.
On Monday Prime Minister Bill English changed tack and announced "growing public concern" was behind the decision to write to the Ministry for the Environment's water allocation technical advisory group, asking it to consider "the issues around exporting water".
But it would not report back before the September election.
Previously the Government had been reluctant to investigate the issue - Environment Minister Nick Smith had called a proposed ban on water exports "farcical" - but public outcry prompted English to act.
Labour leader Andrew Little said the issue of putting a price on the country's water was a "real issue now" and Kiwis were concerned about it.
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This was just another example of the Government kicking the can down the road to avoid it being an election issue, he said.
Labour would put an "appropriate levy" on water use, but he couldn't say what that might be.
But Labour's water spokesman David Parker said Smith was exaggerating "about a thousand fold" with talk of 10c a litre of water.
"This is not going to make people broke."
The levy would be set by Treasury but the money, after a discussion with Maori, would go to local councils to spend on cleaning up waterways and reducing other rates.
"We are not going to put up the cost of farming."
Farmers might pay a bit for their water but they would get it off their rates.
He said it was "stupid' of the Government to say no-one owned water and ownership questions did not take you far.
"i prefer to say everyone owns water, but once water is put in a bottle it's clearly owned by the person that's selling it."
Some people had a commercial interest in water that was valuable.
'It's a public resource and the public should be getting a return on that just as they do from oil, gas, gold, silver and even gravel."
Little said he wasn't interested in a blanket charge for water, but suggested some sort of system that might say "water use for human and livestock consumption has no charge".
"This is about an appropriate levy on commercial water users, particularly the water bottlers, to make sure that they are paying fairly for the raw material they are using. If there are claims about the revenue generated by that let's hear them and work those out."
If Maori wanted to be "in on this", they would have to be heard and their rights worked out.
"There will be the issue of Maori rights. You don't have to get into the issue about who owns water but if there's a resource rental being applied to water in the way 20 to 25 years ago it was applied to fisheries, then Maori will have a claim about it and we'll have to deal with that as well," he said.
But as with other mineral levies, it would be done responsibly to ensure enterprises and industries were competitive and commercially viable.
English said the Government's experience had shown water issues were "always five times more complicated than you thought", and he did not underestimate the challenges involved in dealing with exports.
"On the one hand, there is real public concern about foreign companies' access to water, on the other hand there's' a long-held, deep-seated view among New Zealanders that no-one owns it and it's free, so we'd want to step through any process carefully."
Maori water interests and rights would need to be part of the discussion, along with whether a charge could be levied without establishing who legally owned the water.