We should all pay for the water we use
OPINION: Populist issues are dangerous for a variety of reasons.
They work primarily on the heart rather than the head and demand a quick simple fix designed mainly to placate inflamed emotions.
Cautious, intelligent and experienced politicians fear them for good reason.
Usually they have to give way just to ensure they don't bleed votes needed to get them elected. If they don't react to calm the masses, they risk looking arrogant and out of touch. They are accused of being tone deaf to public mood.
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Who would have thought that bottled water would emerge this year as one of those populist issues especially when we have crime, immigration and housing to keep us exercised.
But water in bottles it is and this week new Prime Minister Bill English, recognising he had to be seen to be taking heed of public opinion, hooked the issue from the maelstrom and tossed it flailing onto a water allocation technical advisory group, no doubt hoping it will die a quiet death.
The issue was framed in such a way that only one view could win.
No-one is going to dispute that businesses, especially foreign multinationals, pumping our pure water from the ground and bottling it for export, should pay a lot more than the cost of a resource consent and some sort of monitoring fee.
The argument is that water is a commodity like gold and coal and that the state can rightfully demand a cut.
We don't of course use gold or coal to grow our crops (although coal is used to heat glasshouses), fatten our cattle or to wash our factory floors but that is almost beside the point.
If you bottle water and sell it overseas, you should pay something to the public purse. No brainer.
The only problem with that is what do you say to the Chinese-owned meatworks which uses enormous amounts of water to clean its machinery or the Australian-owned wine maker that uses a huge quantity of water to produce a bottle of wine or the German-owned dairy farms which use large scale irrigation.
And why single out enterprises using water? Look also at the fishing industry. Fish in the sea are a publicly-owned resource, but fishing companies get the fish for free.
Yes, a substantial capital investment is required for things like fishing and that creates jobs but water bottling plants and marketing structures also cost a lot to set up and also employ people.
In other words it's complicated and the issue needs time and nuanced solutions and perhaps ones that might not be too popular with people who haven't thought the issue through.
One such solution, and one that I support, is that everyone should be charged for the water they use. Already many councils around the country charge residents for water usage.
My fixed-income elderly mother lives in rainy Auckland and pays a monthly charge for water.
I live in dry old Canterbury and don't pay a cent for the water I use.
We should all be paying for water because that's the only way it's properly valued. Price is the only language everyone understands. Businesses that can pass on the cost should pay more and those that can't should pay less.
For one thing, a charge, perhaps calibrated for each region and each activity, would make both commercial and residential users more careful.
We can all think of terrible wastes of water.
Here are my top two:
The other week I was stuck in traffic late in the day outside one of those car-wash cafes. I watched an employee use a high-pressure hose instead of a simple broom to leisurely clean up the large forecourt.
But that pales by comparison with my other favourite. I'm not sure if it's still done, but on an easterly day the Port of Lyttelton used to spray our pure aquifer water onto stacks of coal to keep the coal dust from blowing into the township.
A charge would stop wastage and could be used to fund a better water infrastructure and for fighting pollution.
The water issue also highlights a sad fact about politics. Environment Minister Nick Smith has tried to set out some pertinent facts and arguments which suggest that charging only water bottlers is unfair and unreasonable in the current set-up.
He has done what we always say politicians should do. That is, act rationally and on the evidence. We scorn politicians who go after the easy votes by simplifying issues and appeal to knee-jerk emotions. We want fair and workable laws that don't impose unnecessary costs.
Yet that all goes out the window when a politician tries to introduce an element of caution and perspective into a debate like who should pay for water.
We all need to pay our share and we need to recognise that populists are not the best people to come up with a fair system.