Bill English seems to have reacted to public pressure over water exports.
The Government is asking for advice on whether it should be charging companies to export bottled freshwater in response to rising public pressure on the issue.
Prime Minister Bill English said today that ministers were writing to a technical advisory group today to investigate a price on water allocation, but only in relation to the relatively small bottled water industry.
That is despite Environment Minister Nick Smith emphatically saying last week that it was not worth looking at because bottled water made up a fraction of the freshwater used in New Zealand.
Speaking at his weekly press conference this afternoon, English said he sought more advice because of “growing public concerns” about the issue.
He reiterated that the issue was complicated and that any charge would mark a fundamental shift in policy in New Zealand.
Until now it has not been possible to charge for water, only for it’s distribution and supply (usually through rates or water charges), or the cost of installing and maintaining irrigation systems, or the cost of extracting, bottling and distributing commerically sold water.
“We’re not saying it’s too hard, we’re just saying it’s hard.
“Because it’s a big shift for New Zealand, to say we’re actually going to put a price on water.
“Water has been free, it hasn’t been owned by anybody.”
The government is being accused of passing the buck by asking a specialist group to look into the idea of taxing water.
Opposition parties say a similar government group has already looked at the matter and come up empty – and it won’t be any different this time.
But the Labour Party said Mr English was deliberately delaying the question until after the election.
The party’s water spokesperson, David Parker, said the advisory group would make no difference and the plan was “another flip flop from the Prime Minister”.
“Three days ago he was saying nothing could be done, and then he was saying something’s to be done and now he’s saying something’s to be done on the never-never. Flip-flopping like a fish out of water.”
English has left himself open to attacks like this.
However it would be ludicrous to respond to public pressure, which has only been applied in the last week or so, with a hurried law change, even if it was practical to fit it in to the legislative schedule.
Water is a victim of electioneering here.
Just slapping sudden charges on something that has never been charged for before would be nuts – especially given the likelihood there would be Waitangi Tribunal complications.