Control of water shapes up to be leading issue

19:02, Sep 30 2013

There is always a moment when we realise that power has shifted.

Trusted people and institutions suddenly turn against us. Those whose job it is to assess and avert public risk disappear.

We hear rumours about wholesale sackings and forced resignations. Obvious and serious conflicts of interest are studiously ignored. And those in charge, while not guilty of telling outright lies, have unquestionably stopped telling us the whole truth.

Such extreme power shifts are generally confined to the corporate sector. And while they are never pleasant, and often very costly in personal terms, most of us nevertheless accept the process.

The business world is not a democratic world: its unfairness and rapacity is largely beyond our control. Businesses fail, are sold, merged, asset-stripped, re- branded and downsized - and there's not a lot any of us can do about it.

Beyond the business world, however, we do not expect to be left out of the equation. Employees may be required to subordinate their judgment to the entity paying their wages but, constitutionally- speaking, citizens are sovereign: their democratic judgements not subject to private-sector countermand.


Citizens do not take kindly to being treated as if they were employees.

But this is precisely what is happening. All over the country: from the Canterbury Plains to the Tukituki River in Hawke's Bay; private interests are muscling in on public resources; compromising the integrity of public institutions; and trampling with ill-disguised contempt upon the rights of New Zealand citizens.

And at the heart of this power grab is - water.

I shouldn't be surprised. On November 19, 2008, just 11 days after the election of the current government, the right-wing political commentator Matthew Hooton and I were invited to address the national executive of Federated Farmers.

Coming away from that meeting, I was impressed by three things.

The first was how much the Federated Farmers CEO, Conor English, looked and sounded like his brother, Bill, the newly elected government's finance minister.

The second was the presence of Dr William Rolleston. Until that moment, I had only known Rolleston in his role as one of New Zealand's most outspoken advocates of genetically engineered agricultural production.

That he was so closely associated with Federated Farmers was something I probably should have known, but was still rather disturbed to find out.

The third, and by far the most important, thing I took away from that meeting was Conor English giving me a quiet "heads-up" that the most important issue facing Federated Farmers, and New Zealand, over the next few decades would be the issue of who controlled access to what was fast becoming the nation's most valuable natural resource - water.

Most New Zealanders don't think too much about water. Most of us live in cities and towns which, for the better part of a hundred years, have enjoyed a plentiful, safe and remarkably cheap water supply.

In the odd drought year we townies may be asked to refrain from watering our gardens, but most of us, for most of the time, don't give water a second thought.

Matters are very different in the countryside.

Over the course of the past 20 years the New Zealand landscape has been transformed by the extraordinary growth of the dairy industry. Where once the cargo vessels leaving our ports were loaded down with carcasses of frozen lamb and bales of wool - as well as butter and cheese - our agricultural exports are today dominated the thousands of tons of top-quality milk powder produced by New Zealand's world-beating dairy farmers.

That milk powder earns this country billions of dollars every year, but dairying's "white gold" comes at a heavy cost.

The successful dairy farm not only requires millions of litres of water by way of an input, but its hundreds of cows also discharge equally vast quantities of effluent by way of an output. That effluent inevitably makes its way into the nation's waterways - polluting them to the extent that the lower reaches of more than half of New Zealand's largest and most magnificent rivers are no longer safe to fish or swim in. And neither are their tributaries.

The shutting down of democracy in the Canterbury Regional Council, ECan, and the more recent suppression of a Department of Conservation draft report on the sustainability of the Ruataniwha Dam, represent the working out in political terms of Conor English's heads-up warning of five years ago.

New Zealand's dairy farmers, and the enormous economic interests they represent, have decided to privatise the nation's water resources - and the Government is helping them do it.

Rolleston has even enlisted the reality of global warming to advance Federated Farmers' cause: While New Zealand has plenty of water, he says, it's not always in the right place at the right time.

But, presumably, it will soon be in the right hands.

The Press