Gordon Campbell on the likely Maori Council challenge over water rights

If no one owns the water – as then government insists is the case – then what it is doing selling a significant stake in businesses where water rights are an essential part of their operation? Unfortunately, the Key government has refused to negotiate over that issue, and the problem now seems destined for the courts, at terrific expense to the taxpayer, and to the Maori Council. It is – or should be – an admission of failure by the government that all parties now need to resort to litigation in order to sort out the mess that has been created by the government’s partial asset sales programme, and over which it has refused to negotiate with the Maori Council or with any other Treaty partner above the level of local iwi. This isn’t merely a local issue though, is it?

And yet…that point will presumably be one of the many issues that the courts will need to formally resolve i.e. to what extent the Maori Council has standing to bring this case on behalf of all Maori. Not to mention that if no one owns something, how can one partner unilaterally act as if it does, by selling off something where access to this-thing-that-no-one-owns is understood to be a crucial part of the deal? That it has come down to this (financially ruinous) course of legal action is, of course, an indictment of this government, and of its refusal to engage with the Maori Council, or with the Maori King to find a solution. The legal costs will further erode the economic case for the partial asset sales, which were barely a break-even proposition (and by most calculations, a loss maker) even before the costs of this latest episode were factored in. Regardless, the government seems to have adopted a “ Bring It On” attitude when it comes to going to court, in order to get a mandate for a partial asset sales programme that will benefit only a few investors, while it inflicts a substantial loss on the vast majority of New Zealanders.

Let’s see….these partial asset sales involve selling down our stake in valuable assets in perpetuity, within a depressed market when the return to taxpayers is all but guaranteed to be poor, and when it is demonstrably cheaper to borrow the money to meet any pressing social and infrastructural needs. The selldowns will also mean higher power prices for everyone, in order to reward a relatively small number of investors, and to pay for the usual private sector inefficiencies, of outrageous remuneration and bonus packages.

Huge legal costs will also now be levied for unnecessary court action. The courts will be dragged into an emotionally charged situation as the referee – and they will be expected to meet the government’s rushed timetable – in order to resolve what is widely seen as a purely political issue. Oh, and there’s a national referendum looming on the asset sales process, one which the government already appears intent on ignoring. Tot it all up and the partial asset sales programme makes Think Big look like the wisdom of Solomon by comparison.

One can have real sympathy for the Maori Council as it meets this week to make a decision on whether to launch a legal challenge. Ironically, this legal challenge – when it is officially announced later this week – could do more for race relations in this country than anything since the hikoi of the mid 1970s. After all, the Council’s challenge has the potential to unify all New Zealanders against a high handed course of action that’s likely to inflict social and economic damage on New Zealand. In the short term though, we will officially be on the other side of the fence. As taxpayers, we will be forced to bankroll the legal defence of a shonky plan to unload our assets onto the sharemarket, purely for the benefit of an investor elite. Do you remember voting for this?