Water issue strains political ties

TALKING POLITICS BY GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 10:48 19/07/2012

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OPINION: How long a political issue stays in the headlines depends a lot on whether Parliament is in session at the time.

Unfortunately for Prime Minister John Key, the recent parliamentary recess meant that there was no ready escape or diversion available when controversy erupted last week over who holds the ownership rights to the water being used by the very same state energy companies that he is about to put on the auction block.

The issue dominated the news agenda for well over a week, which is an eternity in the normal cycle of political spin.

The kerfuffle was triggered by Key's observation that his government was under no obligation to abide by the Waitangi Tribunal's rulings on water rights.

Probably, this innocent statement of fact was intended to reassure any nervous foreign investors waiting in the wings.

Given the way Key expressed himself, however, the implication was that the partial asset sales would go ahead regardless of what the Waitangi Tribunal thought about it, one way or the other.

The sense of disrespect put the Maori Party on the spot, as an apparent accomplice.

Therefore, Key has since needed to offer a few expressions of humbled respect, while the Maori Party has needed to be seen as the staunch defender of the tribunal's mana - hopefully, without this belated display of sensitivity getting in the way of the business at hand.

National clearly thought it could flannel its way through any of the potential Treaty problems to do with water rights, and that says quite a lot about how captive it regards the Maori Party as being to the coalition, and to whatever National chooses to do.

As an aside, the situation also underlines the tactical mistake Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia has made in putting all of the Maori Party's eggs into the one Whanau Ora basket.

She now appears to be a captive of John Key, even more visibly than she was to Helen Clark. (Second marriages tend to break down for the same old reasons.)

A break with National still seems inevitable, eventually.

If the proximity to National is proving difficult for Turia to manage now, just wait until her Maori constituents begin to feel the full fallout from asset sales, and from welfare reform.

Ultimately, the water rights issue may yet prove to be the deal breaker, given that any bill for compensation finally advocated by the tribunal would not be a negligible one.

If the new owners of the state energy assets finally do have to pay for the rights to use water, those costs will be recovered from consumers, thus turning an already unpopular policy into political poison.

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Key has different suitors to please.

To prospective investors in the state assets, he has to be able to guarantee that there will be no impediments when it comes to the business of extracting profits.

Simultaneously, he has to convince voters that this is (a) a good deal and that (b) he knows what he's doing.

On both counts, he has some lost ground to make up.

The ownership status of water is crucial to the functioning of these assets - we're talking about hydro power, right?

Really, how hard was it to foresee that this could pose a problem, further down the track?

- The Wellingtonian

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