Jim Hopkins on current issues

Jim Hopkins is a Herald columnist

Jim Hopkins: How long can we divide our house against itself?

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File photo / Brett Phibbs
File photo / Brett Phibbs

Oh, darn. "Once more unto the beach, dear friends." Well, not the beach, more like the river, puddle, rill, and stream. But the principle's the same. And the issue's the same. And the argument's the same. And the reaction's the same. And the reaction to the reaction is the same.

And here we go again - another fine mess we've gotten ourselves into. Because we have.

This is our favourite faction replay, the old and festering sore, inflamed by good intentions and false expectations, and it just keeps on keeping on - dragging us back to Groundhog Day over and over again. Although, this time, it's more Waterhog Day than Groundhog Day.

"We own it." "No, you don't." "Yes, we do." "Don't!" "Do!" "Don't!!" "Do!!" All together now, one, two, three - "Ya, boo, sucks, and your mother wears army boots."

In truth, no one "owns" anything. Ownership is an invention - a brilliant invention, inspired, enabling, a measure of our transition as a species from the rule of force to the rule of law.

"Ownership" is occupation validated. That's it. You don't have to fight to keep what you've got, 'cos you've got a piece of paper that does your fighting for you.

That's why the notion of ownership makes sense on land. Generally speaking, land tends to stay where it is. It doesn't go away. It doesn't dry up. You don't get more of it when it rains. And it doesn't change course. You don't wake up of a morning and find it's gone round the other side of the mountain.

But water does. It keeps moving, for heaven's sake.

Buy a piece of river today and by the middle of next week your bit will be making the fish feel queasy somewhere out in the ocean.

It's hard to "own" something that's just passing through.

Water's like electricity, really. Granted, it's created, not made but, fundamentally, each is a potentiating element, something we rely on and benefit from, something we harness, exploit, and enjoy. There's a bit more to it, of course. Electricity may be desirable, even necessary, today, but water is essential. Without it, we die. We can't live in the water, but we can't live without it, either.

That's reflected in the way we ration it. We won't allow some giant power generator, MegaCupload, let's say, to put a dam at the top of the river and leave Auckland's reservoirs empty. Individuals can get a licence to use some water for their own purposes, but they've got to leave enough to keep the fish happy and the fishermen and the kids who want to swim, not to mention the cockies and the factories and all those people with taps in their kitchens and a spa on the lawn.

Oh, and those poor sods who get to wash the Ministerial Beemers before they rush the blustering politicians to their "whanau's ova" meeting. We can't have Mr Key and Mrs T turning up in grubby limos. Or Dr Pita arriving in a 7 Series with "Please clean me" written in fingertip on the dusty back window.

So we need to get things sorted. And the good news is that it shouldn't take too long. It should be a walk in the lake for the Waitangi Tribunal. Turn up, sign the attendance register, have a chat, and issue an interim decision (that way, everyone can have some more meetings later.)

But, for now, just say we live on the land. That's why we own bits of it - to reduce the incidence of fighting. And we live with the water - that's why we use bits of it. Water is something we share. It's a common good, a moveable feast, a force of nature whose benefits are varied but, ultimately, universal. That's why we ration it. So that private interest is subordinate to the greater good.

And our long-established allocation system trumps customary title. Even the Supreme Court would acknowledge that - unless they're having an activist day. Game over, let's go home, no need for a race riot.

If there is an issue, and there may well be, it's whether some share of the licensing revenues collected by central and local government should, as of right, become an ongoing revenue stream for one particular ethnic group.

But that doesn't need to be settled urgently. And certainly not because some shares may soon be sold. Whether the government owns 100 per cent or 51 per cent of any particular power company is immaterial. It doesn't matter who pays the licence fee. What matters is who gets the moolah.

And those who write the cheques don't decide that. This is something for the Crown to settle, in due and thoughtful course, with those citizens who feel they're entitled to a specified piece of the water rights action.

Good luck to all involved. But the larger question is what price do those citizens - and their neighbours - pay to achieve that benefit.

Abraham Lincoln said "A house divided against itself cannot stand." In which case, how long can we stand dividing our house against itself? That's the nub of all these matters. And the matter no tribunal can resolve.

- NZ Herald

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