Why we are all talking about water

22:48, Jul 15 2012

Sonny Bill? Obesity? Tom-Kat? Last week the topic of conversation at the water-coolers of the nation moved to water.

Who owns it? Certainly not Maori, if John Key is to be believed. Though in the past he has talked about water rights, he now reckons nobody owns water. I’ll remember that next time I pay my rates.

As anyone who has watched Chinatown knows, the ownership of water can cause people to commit terrible deeds.

The most terrible deed that Mr Key committed, in the eyes of the Maori Party, was that he bluntly stated what everyone knows: that the Government doesn’t have to take notice of the findings of the special Waitangi Tribunal hearing into water rights.

So while Mr Key was pouring water on potential Maori ownership, Tariana Turia, who turned up to the hearing wearing a beret that made her look like Che Guevara’s grumpy grandma, was not impressed by the prime minister ‘‘dissing’’ the tribunal with ‘‘inflammatory’’ comments.

Comrade Turia believed that Mr Key was pandering to his constituency, and undermining the tribunal process. Maori Party president Pem Bird described Mr Key’s comments as ‘‘corrosive’’. Water can do that. 

The Maori Party wanted an urgent hui to discuss the wais and wherefores of who owned what.  But Mr Key’s diary was far too full to meet his support party – bowling clubs don’t open themselves, you know.

It’s obvious that Mrs Turia doesn’t understand National Party tikanga. If she got herself a job as a Warner Brothers vice-president, Gerry Brownlee would be sending around the limo for a special meeting with the Government before you could say ‘‘changes to industrial legislation’’.

So could this skirmish with the Maori Party derail state asset sales? Possibly. When shares are floated could they sink because of legal problems over water ownership? Definitely. Australian Mum and Dad investors, who may be given the chance to buy shares in New Zealand’s dinkum assets, should be very worried.

Up till now, relations between the Maori Party and the Government have been cordial and, as Mrs  Turia, said, ‘‘respectful’’. Yes, the Maori Party had problems with a certain member for Te Tai Tokerau. Yes, many Maori are critical of the few tangible gains that the party has made for their largely disadvantaged constituency. But the Maori Party is still there, having daily input and influence on government policy.

The trouble is that, though in the past Mr Key has been quite happy to compromise, the assets sales issue goes to the core of his beliefs and his government’s economic policy. 

In fact, it feels like it’s the only government economic policy. Asset sales are as tapu to National as the Treaty of Waitangi is to the Maori Party. The futures trading floor is Mr  Key’s turangawaewae and he won’t tolerate anything that gets in the way of his privatising kaupapa. I suspect this explains his more hoha attitude of late to the Maori Party.

So can these seemingly irreconcilable differences be resolved? I think so. I suspect that this week Mr Key will throw some mana at the problem and show some contrition.

Though David Shearer and Grant Robertson may put on their butchest sleeveless vests and try and court the Maori Party, it’s obvious that Mrs Turia still has total contempt for Labour over the foreshore issue. And the astute Dr Sharples is a born conciliator and a wily old dog. He has said he wants to "stay at the table" rather than walk away.

It’s a pity that asset sales have driven such a wedge into this Government. Even pro-business economists are warning of the dangers of selling assets, and it could lose National some faithful friends and supporters.

I can't help thinking that once the process is finally completed, with all its fish-hooks and caveats, with blood on the floor from disgruntled support party MPs and plummeting public support, there will be a small child watching Mr Key as he rushes off to his next public event.

And this child will say, Emperor’s New Clothes-style, "why didn’t you just leave the assets alone and you wouldn’t have all this trouble?"


The Dominion Post