Tapu Misa: Water claim really about Maori's role as caretakers

John Key once said New Zealanders were socialists at heart. Photo / Getty Images

By Tapu Misa

The Prime Minister says no one owns water. What a socialist notion. If no one owns water, how could anyone profit from it? This is akin to Karl Marx's exhortation that "individuals must abolish private property".

The German philosopher is becoming popular again, the Guardian reported recently, as the global financial crisis exposes capitalism's dark underbelly.

Marx wrote: "Even a whole society, a nation, or even simultaneously existing societies together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors ... [and] they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition."

He must have been part-Maori. Most New Zealanders like to think the country's natural resources belong to the nation.

The idea that no one should "own" such a precious resource as water, and that Governments should manage the country's resources in the national interest, rather than to enrich a few, resonates with most of us.

It's why a majority of us are against the partial sale of state assets, and why we don't like the idea of foreigners (or indeed anyone) with deep pockets buying up large tracts of our best land for themselves.

Key himself once said New Zealanders were socialists at heart. Maybe so, but we're still firmly wedded to Western notions of property and ownership.

The Enlightenment philosopher John Locke elevated property to the status of a natural human right, alongside liberty and life. He held that our labour could take something unowned and make it ours. Thus, we were entitled not just to the fruits of our hard work - the crops harvested or the deer hunted - but to the very land on which we toiled.

Man "by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common".

This was convenient if you were a settler in colonial New Zealand, but not so great if your worldview didn't encompass anything remotely approaching individual ownership.

Where have these Western concepts of individual property rights brought us?

Voltaire believed property lay at the heart of social conflict. Cicero held that the purpose of the state was to protect private property. Jean-Jacques Rousseau agreed that the institution of the state "fixed forever the laws of property and inequality; converted clever usurpation into inalienable right", and, for the benefit of a few ambitious men, "subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, servitude and misery".

The idea that Maori might have a less proprietary approach to their physical environment seems not to have occurred to most people.

In talkback country, where everything is simple, Maori were getting the blame last week for trying to profit from water.

How venal of Maori to try to put a price on "free" water. How rude to get in the way of investors seeking maximum profit from the free use of our water.

Where was the aroha in that?

An investment expert testifying for the Maori Council told the Waitangi Tribunal last week that investors looking to pick up 49 per cent of our best-performing state-owned enterprises were expecting to buy water-reliant assets "on the basis that the water costs nothing".

Why should they get a free ride? As an iwi spokesman pointed out, Maori had chosen not to assert their rights when water was used by Governments in a way that benefited the national interest, but that had changed now the Key Government was seeking "to use that water 51 per cent for the nation and 49 per cent for others".

"The moment the Government moves to privatise access rights, or make those access rights enjoy a character very close to a tradeable property right, you wake up the taniwha of Maori ancestral rights," Labour MP Shane Jones told the Herald's Adam Bennett.

Actually, they're more responsibilities and duties than "rights".

Moana Jackson, a constitutional lawyer, says the Maori Council claim for recognition of water rights is "about preserving and protecting Maori authority in relation to water".

Without authority, Maori can't fulfil their duty as kaitiaki - caretakers of their environment. The "rangatiratanga notion of ownership implies a particular relationship of care, but you can only care for something if you have authority to care for it. But it doesn't create an exclusive Pakeha-type ownership".

Nin Tomas, associate professor of law at the University of Auckland, writes that Western thinking treats "natural resources, and specifically land ... as things without an inherent or legal personality of their own. They are merely chattels available for humans to exploit at will".

The Maori perception includes the "overt recognition" of the earth as a living entity, with humans as subjects rather than masters.

Tomas argues that Maori traditional values "provide a bedrock of duties owed to the environment. In the context of these duties, Western property rights, in the form of use rights, should be restricted in their application so that destruction of the environment to satisfy short-term human wants and needs is viewed as socially unacceptable".

What is needed, she writes, are arrangements that incorporate Maori and Western values and treat them as equally important.

Tomas argues that if we could extend Western thinking to recognising that "things" have an independent life force and a "right to life" that ought to be respected, and if "Maori can stop themselves from becoming enamoured of the financial benefits to be had from selfish exploitation, the world would surely be a better place".

Debate on this article has now been closed.

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- Greenlane
02:37 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
The power companies have every right to use water to make profit. Just as you have the right to profit from living by breathing the air around us. The power companies are not damanging the water in any way. Do you realise that the power companies actually make power from the earths gravity which moves water around and makes water flow because of it?

Do lets correct this stupid argument and suggest that maori should claim ownership on the earths gravity instead because thats the reason why water generates power, from the flow of the water to drive the generators in the power stations.

If maori want to own water are they also going to foot the bill for all damages and cleaning up all pollution in water? I would think that would amount to hundreds of billions of dollars a year in expendature completely wiping out the income they would rob NZ of by asking for compensation from everyone who uses water. Do the math, you would be on the losing end claiming water rights. This is why noody owns water, its a resource which would be impossible to fully maintain and be accountable for.

The more Maori push this issue the more people will backlash I promise you.


- Mozambique
02:36 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
You can't just avoid payment by going to the river and getting a bucket of water, no matter whether it's dirty or not. You will still be charged on your rates. I may be wrong, but I believe that some people on Waiheke are charged water rates even though they are on tank water and have no reticulated supply.


- Opawa
02:36 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
One of the good things about the European philosophers that Tapu Misa has quoted, is that their works are all consigned to paper. When you choose to quote from them, you know you're on fairly solid, if not incontestable ground. And they are, of course, globally accessible despite being essentially European intellectual property - if you want to get all geo-racial about it.

It seems to me that, by contrast, many Maori concepts and arguments are quite hard to pin down. Just when you think you've counted the stripes on the Taniwha, one of them falls off, having been, in fact, an eel which you could not quite see clearly from your vantage point.

I'm reminded of an antic by one of my favourite musicians, Syd Barrett, of early Pink Floyd fame. He taught his band mates a song called, "Have you got it yet?". Only after trying to play it for about five minutes did they realise that Syd kept changing the tune, while singing "have you got it yet?" to reveal to them their own stupidity, and his growing contempt. Syd liked drugs, and he ate too much acid. He wound up suffering severe personality changes, and spent most of his life living at home with his mother.


02:35 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
Why must Maori and others of the green persuasion be seen as playing a game. If anything the Government and people who don't give a damn are playing Russian roulette with our resources and with our planet.

There are many of us trying to do the right for this planet, for this country in our own little way, lets call a spade a spade to use your cards analogy and say that the Government and capitalists looking to make a quick buck have got us in this @$%t!

And all they care about is money, money, money. The question is when will they start selling there 51% share off. Somebodies making a s*** load of money and it certainly ain't the majority of us. Also maybe lawyers dealing with treaty stuff and issues like this should get paid only if they win to thin the gravy so to speak.

Mullingar Man

- Auckland Central
02:35 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
Why is it that all sides of the political spectrum have this same opinion. Probably indicates that all politicians are the same, out for themselves rather than who they represent. This should not come as a surprise as that would be consistent with Maslow's theories, most politicians have moved beyond money as their motivator, they are looking for recognition. Shame the subject often get's so devisive that the result for the politician is the opposite of what they are motivated to achieve.


- Waikouaiti
02:35 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
Opps Ms Misa has missed the point

When the "Treaty " was signed Maori may have "owned the Water " in their view but on the day of signing the water flowed seaward and at 5 knots was lost to the eg Waikato *system* in 48 hours so the ownership changed to the newly replenished water from rain falland snow melt and was not theirs any more

But if maori insist on owning water today then pay up when the Wanganui Floods tonight or the Canterbury Plains suffer a drought next summer or the price for all who need hydro generation from the hydro lake this winter face higher power costs mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm I think Not

Richard D

- Tauranga
02:35 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
You cannot tell us anything of the sort, we can all read history, and we are all able to see what is happening in our current surroundings from which we form an opinion. More Maoris have adapted and done well than haven't in the worlds system which isn't just Pakeha NZs.

Because Maori are over proportianly representive in many of the wrong areas of our society, doesn't speak for all Maori as you claim. It actually displays the success of the rest of Maoridom and our society.

All NZers who have the ethos of self responsability and self enhancement have had the ability to position themselves in society where they see fit. Why would you want to diminish that to cater for a small sector.

Surely we need to find a way to lift this group all of us as citizens of the country and members of our communities. With your position to not trust Govt or the society that creates Govt, how will the current situation change.


02:33 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
Kia ora Warwick. What I am trying to convey is the Pakeha and Maori concepts of proprietary ownership differ. The Pakeha system places a monetary value on certain property and resources such as water for example, which can be bought and sold.

A tradeable commodity. Customary Maori tikanga is that you don't own something but are guardians of that resource for the short time you are here. The river or lake for doesn't belong to you but you belong to it as that is what helped sustain your life source. So it's like selling yourself off in a way.

Yes you're right there are faults in individual Maori as there is in individual Pakeha, Russian, Chinese or whatever. Maori have to compete somehow and unfortunately some go down the wrong path. How can you say though Maori are on the gravy train when south canterbury finance are bailed out to the same tune Maori have received in 25 years. You hardly hear red neck New Zealand complain about that.

Kaitiakitanga is a great responsibility and it is evident Mr Key and the crown are incapable of protecting our resources for future generations. And I tell you what John Key has many more puppets than Titiwhai does.


02:33 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
The resources New Zealand has are owned by us, it's citizens. Not by the Government. Governments and politicians come and go. We elect them, for a time, to manage our affairs, including our resources. Water is a resource, and an increasingly important one.

I don't think anyone minds that the Government, on our behalf, manages and utilizes that resource, for the benefit of us all. After all we need drinking water, irrigation and electricity among other things. But it's ours, and we as citizens have a stake in it, Maori included. In addition, Maori are treaty partners with the crown.

They are, it's a fact. And they are quite rightly concerned at Government moves to privatise the use of this vital resource, for the benefit of a wealthy few, and without adequate consultation.

It's one thing to receive excessive bills for electricity, knowing at least, that the proceeds are contributing to the countries coffers. It's another thing entirely to know that these excessive charges are supporting wealthy local and overseas investors. I can understand entirely why Maori, as treaty partners, feel particularly aggrieved at that prospect.


- Mozambique
02:32 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
I agree with the sentiment but watch how Key and his mates turn this into a Maori v everyone else issue to deflect from what is important. Classic divide and rule and most people can't see it. Tragic.

There are many who are glad to see any attempt to slow down or stop the sale.
Maori are in a unique position being able to lay down a formal challenge in a recognised forum, the rest of us can't do that.

It wouldn't be a silly idea if Maori were to declare this challenge is on behalf of all New Zealanders opposed to the sale of assets. It would bring them great support and also do much for race relations in the country. A turning point in our history?


02:32 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
No we shouldn't thank them. Nice try at putting a positive spin on it.
All it will do is slow down the inevitable and make the asset less valuable (thereby depriving the rest of the citizens) whilst making some Maori richer when they get what they were after in the first place, cheaper shares and royalties for water use by the power company.


- Otago
02:31 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
Its not a novel idea at all. Its centuries old. And its just as impossible now as it was on day one. The money would be worthless because you would not be able to buy anything with it.

The Mexican

- New Zealand
02:31 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
Its charged by the litre because there is a cost for each litre that is abstracted, treated and then pumped to the final destination for use. There is no other fair way to charge. Charging by the litre also discourages wastage and encourages water conservation.


- United Kingdom
02:31 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
As we are living in a moden democratic country it is our right as New Zealanders to strongly oppose Maori ownership of water,land or anything else that is Crown controlled or managed if we feel like it.

The Maori activist goal of attempting to destabalise the government by dictating policy by way of a dated and contoversial document needs to be stopped at all costs.

We are frustation point with a group a people who not only are at the bottom of every socio economic indictor but also dont want to live by our western democratic principles.Questions now must be asked if we need to take drastic measures against Maoridom.

The Mexican

- New Zealand
02:31 pm Tuesday 17 July 2012
Possession is not ownership. You can possess something that you dont own and you can own something that you dont possess. The hydro-companies do not have ownership of the water. They have permits that allow then to dam, divert and discharge. Not own. And those permits are temporary and must be renewed upon expirey if the activity is to continue. You can set up another dam upstream as long as you obtain the necessary permits and there are plenty of hydro schemes in NZ which have other schemes upstream and downstream.
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