Richard Long: Moral panic hits the mainstream

19:48, Jul 16 2012
Branch River
For the mainstream Kiwi voter, ownership claims on the water in our rivers, streams and lakes can be guaranteed to bring on a panic attack.

It would have to rank as the best political dog whistle since Don Brash's "one law for all" Orewa speech.

Prime Minister John Key's astute "no-one owns the water" response to the Maori Council's claim to the Waitangi Tribunal would have caught the attention of the great silent majority, known in political jargon as the mainstream.

And for those who missed the first whistle there were the follow-ups in terms of personal attacks on the whistler. The New Zealand Herald accused him of shooting from the lip and its columnists variously described him as panicking, sneering, and acting “like a doofus”.

Even the moderates accused him of being less than subtle. But what is the point of a subtle political dog whistle? By its very nature the signal is designed to arouse attention on a matter of concern, get ears pricking and to pass on a coded instruction.

For the mainstream Kiwi voter, ownership claims on the water in our rivers, streams and lakes can be guaranteed to bring on a panic attack. It is just like the seabed and foreshore row all over again.

Dr Brash, when leader of the National Opposition in 2004, sent a similar dog whistle in his Orewa Rotary Club speech when he argued the grievance industry was out of control and there should be one law for everyone.


Labour initially tried attacking this as racist. The trouble with that approach was that it reinforced the surge of support for Dr Brash. National, till then in the doldrums, surged in the opinion polls. Labour then tried a different tack and performed U-turns on five doubtful policies in order to pacify the electorate. That was more successful.

But now that Mr Key has signalled reassurance to his flock that he is not going to sell this particular state asset, just where is the Government at on water? Answer: surfing the rapids without a paddle.

The Waitangi Tribunal, on past record, seems bound to find for the Maori Council. This could, just possibly, be resolved then by a sophisticated formula of words, such as replacing ownership with some form of guardianship. Some Maori kingpins seemed to hint at this at the weekend.

Toby Curtis, chair of Te Arawa Lakes Trust, said: "We own the water - in our concept of ownership." Te Rangikaheke Bidois, chair of Te Mara o Ngati Rangiwewehi, said: "We are always careful in saying we own it. It's not an exclusive ownership, it's an ownership where you know you have to share it."

But if this fails then court action looms. That could go all the way up the legal ladder in a time-consuming process in front of legal eagles whose judicial activism in the past helped land us in these difficulties to start with. And what of the programme of a partial selldown of state assets in the meantime?

If the Government fails in the courts then the recourse would be to legislate to change the law. That's seabed and foreshore all over again and cue for the exit from the Government of the Maori Party. But if ACT MP John Banks is found in the meantime to have acted improperly over Kim Dotcom donations, and his support vote is unavailable, National would not then have a majority.

And while it might be appealing, in normal circumstances, to go to the electorate on a “we all own the water” platform, perhaps even reviving the Iwi-Kiwi billboard, Labour and the Greens would instead try to portray this as a snap election over the sale of state assets, which is less than popular.

All things considered, it would be quicker and cheaper to get Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson, who has a background in legal negotiation for Ngai Tahu, to try to come up with a face-saving formula such as the guardianship solution.

But they would have to watch him. He's as slippery as a barrel of eels from Maori lakes.

Last year he was about to hand back Urewera National Park to the Tuhoe till Mr Key got wind of it at the last minute and pulled the plug just as everyone was gathering for the handover ceremonies.

Richard Long was Dr Brash's chief of staff at the time of the Orewa speech.