Wednesday, August 28, 2019

It turns out that someone does own the water

For the past decade or more the government has been looking at water issues, trying to find better ways of allocating it and of protecting our environment (or, in the case of National, allowing farmers to shit in the rivers without restriction). Lurking in the back of this work, resolutely unaddressed by the government, has been the Treaty. In 1840, Māori owned all the water in New Zealand, and it is legally questionable whether those rights have ever been extinguished. The government is in denial about this, claiming "no-one owns water" (while handing out property rights in it worth billions to farmers and foreign water-bottlers). But the Waitangi Tribunal has finally ruled on the issue, and they are crystal clear: water is a taonga, and it belongs to Māori.

In case anyone has forgotten, the Treaty of waitangi guaranteed Māori te tino rangatiratanga (or, in the English mistranslation, "full exclusive and undisturbed possession") over their lands, villages and all their treasures. This includes water. The RMA's water management regime and its predecessors have systematically violated this right by failing to recognise proprietary rights, by excluding Māori from use of what is ultimately their resource, and by failing to actively protect it as a taonga. Their conclusion:

Our view is that the Crown must now recognise Māori proprietary rights and provide what the New Zealand Māori Council called ‘proprietary redress’. We recommend that the Crown arrange for an allocation on a percentage basis to iwi and hapū, according to a regional, catchment-based scheme. We also recommend an allocation for Māori land development, and that the feasibility of royalties and other forms of proprietary redress be investigated.

Its a perfectly doable solution, and we've done it before for fish (which were similarly a taonga, rights over which were never extinguished). With a bit of patience, we could craft a reasonable settlement with a decent chance of sticking, and which would improve water management into the bargain. But pretty obviously, that would threaten established interests - all those farmers who have benefited from colonial theft, all those water bottlers getting "their" water for free then sticking it in bottles and on-selling it for a fortune. And where there's money on the line, there's going to be politics. I expect we'll see the National Party go full Brash over this, banging the drum for a racist extinguishment of Māori rights to prevent their cronies and backers from having to pay their way. As for Labour, they're such chickenshits they'll probably betray their Māori support base again, bow to National's hate, and turn it into Foreshore & Seabed 2.0. And if they do, they will deserve to be tossed out on their arses.

Finally, the Tribunal apparently recommended that Māori bring a test case to claim their rights, and the New Zealand Maori Council has taken them up on it. The government is not going to be able to dodge this. Instead, they're going to have to say whose side they're on, and suffer the political consequences.