POLITICS : Water On A Stone: Making Policy Stick

There is rule in politics: last long enough in government and initiatives that were originally controversial become orthodox.
So the National government’s deregulation of the labour market in 1991, radical at the time and fiercely opposed by Labour and the unions, was not wholly rolled back in 2000 when the unions’ party, Labour, won office with the Alliance in tow.
In turn, the Labour-led government’s adjustments over its first two terms, opposed by National, have so far been left largely in place by the new National-led Government. They are being adjusted, but there are no plans for wholesale re-deregulation. It’s down to detail now.
Contrast John Howard’s labour market deregulation in Australia in his fourth, and last, term. Kevin Rudd’s government is largely undoing it. Howard’s GST, legislated in his second term against Labor opposition, is tax fixture.
Here Labour squeezed its greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme through in the last weeks of its third, and last, term. Predictably, National set about changing it.
Sometimes it is not so much party as way of thinking that embeds policy shift. So market-liberals in the National party embedded Sir Roger Douglas’ radical reshaping of economic policy in the 1980s. The individual-liberty view has prevailed on once-contentious hot issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
Forty years earlier in 1949 the National party accepted the welfare state created by Labour after trenchantly opposing it 10 years earlier.
A David Lange quip once characterised this process as making consensus by people falling in behind government’s lead.
That is rough politics: disruption followed by acquiescence. Is there another way?
The Labour-led government could have travelled different route on greenhouse gases. It could have tried from 2000 to build consensus across the competing interest groups and then based policy on that. That would have locked National in.
That method is known as the Nordic process. The National Government is trying version of it for water.
Water is New Zealand’s top economic competitive advantage. Water is critical for growing and processing food and for making products. Making car requires huge quantities of water, for example.
The world’s expanding population needs food. Poor populations determined to become rich populations require the full array of consumer goods.
The world demand for water is expanding fast. The world’s supply of water is limited. Many rivers are running dry and aquifers are being drained. Water shortages may constrain the enrichment of China and India, for example, by denying capacity to grow food and make goods.
Here water in all main catchments is already fully allocated or over-allocated. Either ways have to found of accessing more water (96 percent of rain runs out to the sea), or storing it better, or choices have to be made and way has to be found of making the choices.
There are many competing interests: farmers, industry, electricity generators, people wanting water to drink and wash in, fishers, kayakers and swimmers, tourist operators and tourists wanting beautiful, clean, pristine rivers to marvel at and refresh the spirit. Plus, iwi have special interests ranging from the spiritual and traditional to the practical and economic.
Till now these competing interests have been allocated rights to use water by councils under the Resource Management Act on first-in-first-served basis. The result has been windfalls to those who get the rights – up to $10,000 hectare added to the capital value of farms, for example.
Another result has been depletion of aquifers. Another has been that downstream users have less water than they expected. Another has been serious pollution of many rivers and lakes. We are clean-green no more.
Canterbury is worst. In early September “collaborative” process produced complex management plan which seemed to have the backing of competing interests and which the Labour party endorsed.
The Government is attempting this on national scale, using the Land and Water Forum, grouping of all significant water users, with local government representatives.
If it succeeds – and the one-year timeframe is ambitious, judging by the time the process usually takes in Nordic countries – it could settle policy for decade or more.
The alternative is for the competing interests to pitch to ministers, with iwi dealing separately under Treaty process, and for ministers arbitrarily to decide amongst them. Losers could come back for replay after change of government. That’s good politics. But it is bad policy.

Colin James is New Zealand’s leading political commentator and NZ Management’s regular political columnist.

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