Peter Wilson writes
Labour, the Greens and NZ First know they’re on the front foot.
Environment Minister Nick Smith’s clean rivers announcement was a muddy mix-up and now the scene has shifted to something just as emotive – the export for profit of bottled water.
It should be clear to the government, and probably is, that public opinion is running with the opposition.
The Greens launched the campaign back in April last year.
They said 74 companies around the country were exporting millions of litres of water every year and weren’t paying anything for it.
There was a protest march in Ashburton, where the council wanted to sell a 10ha site with the right to extract 40 billion litres of water from the local aquifer over the next 30 years.
In July the council backed off.
Winston Peters was quick to identify an issue that could be exploited.
“When that water is sent overseas for profit, by a New Zealand or a foreign-owned company, then that water should command a royalty collected by the Crown on behalf of the people to whom this common property belongs,” he said.
The NZ First leader vowed that if his party was “in a position of influence” after the next election, he would make sure a royalty was imposed.
The then prime minister, John Key, wouldn’t have a bar of it.
“No one owns water and if we’re going to start charging for it we have to be consistent and charge a lot of people who have access to water,” he said.
The bottled water issue was widely reported at the time, and then it evaporated.
Now it’s back, with an election just months away.
A petition carrying 15,000 signatures was presented to parliament this week asking for a moratorium on bottled water exports.
There were rallies in 19 centres demanding better protection for fresh water.
The petition and the rallies were organised by Bung the Bore, the organisation founded to fight the Ashburton aquifer deal.
Labour’s David Parker eagerly accepted the petition on the steps of parliament, and party leader Andrew Little told reporters “it seems crazy” that water should be given away.
Winston Peters charged back in.
“They will pay to export it offshore, and the money will go back to the local community from where the water was extracted in the first place,” he said.
That’s if he has anything to do with it post-election.
The Greens’ Catherine Delahunty challenged Smith in parliament and, as is his way, the minister decided attack was the best form of defence.
When Delahunty asked Smith whether he would impose a referendum, the answer was a flat “No”.
“Bottled water exports last year totalled nine million litres of New Zealand’s annual water resource of 500 trillion litres,” said Smith.
“A moratorium on bottled water exports to address water shortages makes about as much sense as a moratorium on tricycles to solve New Zealand traffic problems.”
The analogy was a bit off beam but Smith’s point was that there’s so much water it just isn’t worth bothering about what he calls “the teeny weeny amount” that’s exported.
But within 48 hours the government appeared to have started thinking it was worth bothering about.
On Thursday Prime Minister Bill English tried to talk his way around it.
The government was “working on the general issue” of water allocation, it wanted to make sure it “goes to the best use” and the current water use system was “patchy”.
And his deputy, Paula Bennett, on Friday: “It’s just such a small percentage it hasn’t been on the radar, we’ve got the Land and Water Forum out there looking at these issues… we are really serious about improving our water quality.”
All somewhat meaningless but very noticeably different to Smith’s unequivocal response in parliament.
The problem here is Nick Smith. None of the facts have changed. And the opposition are making ridiculous arguments. But due to Smith’s woeful handling of this whole debacle, the government are on the back foot over … nothing really.
As I wrote some weeks ago, National think their Bluegreen credentials are self-evident. As a result they don’t have to win hearts and minds and just roll things out as if everyone will just jump on board and see sense.
But this has left the opposition with such a large sore to keep bothering, it will last all the way into the election. Or, National will cave because it makes it go away.
Unless National can get this out of the media over the next month, they will have to invent some kind of “review panel” that will report back after the election, and then refer to not wanting to preempt the panel’s findings. You know, the standard way to bury things you can’t control.
But really. How many more media eff ups is Smith going to be allowed to create?
– Peter Wilson, NZN via Yahoo! News