The government has written to a group set up to review water allocation in New Zealand to ask it to specifically look into the issue of water bottled for export as part of its considerations.
Prime Minister Bill English said a letter was to be sent Monday to the Water Allocation Technical Advisory Group requesting it explore the topic due to the growing level of public interest in a small part of a broader issue on water pricing in New Zealand.
The Group was set up last year to further work done by the Land and Water Forum on allocation issues. It is set to publish its final recommendations to the government in November 2017, effectively pushing the issue out until after the 23 September general election.
Speaking to media at his post-Cabinet press conference Monday, English denied that the government was merely jumping on the political bandwagon set in motion by Opposition parties in recent weeks on the topic of taxing or banning exports of bottled water.
Environment Minister Nick Smith had last week tried to brush the bottled-export debate aside. However, English indicated a change in direction over the weekend and again Monday morning, indicating a water tax debate could be held, but that the issue of ownership should be dealt with first.
He maintained this position Monday afternoon, saying he did not want to give the public the impression that there was an easy answer. Questions such as who got to charge for water and who received the revenue stream needed to be answered, he said. Maori rights and interests would also need to be incorporated, he said.
It would be a big change for New Zealand to now say a price would be placed on water, after decades of the resource being free and accessible on a first-come-first-served basis, English said. But the public interest on the bottled-export issue illustrated that consensus may have shifted, he said.
Despite the debate only recently having garnered strong media attention, English said the government had been aware of, and was looking into, water pricing and allocation issues for a number of years now. The “public should feel reassured” that the government was covering the issue, he said.
Meanwhile, English said that as the previous MP for Clutha-Southland, he had been aware of consents issued for the export of water, but that most of these hadn’t been taken up due to the financial rationale not stacking up at the time.
The industry was still small and it was not clear what interests were foreign-owned, and which were locally owned, he said. The discussion should focus on whether the practice was permissible under New Zealand law, which it was, rather than whether parties were making a profit off it, he said in response to a question on whether it was concerning money was being made sending water offshore.