Labour is making water a priority

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Labour's new leader David Cunliffe
Labour's new leader David Cunliffe

Labour's new leader David Cunliffe outlines the party's new focus on water management

Water scarcity will become an increasingly important issue and one that will feature strongly in political debate.

As Labour's new leader, I've already made two important decisions to ensure the party focuses on water - a vital resource.

I have personally taken on the regional development portfolio. As leader I have a chance to reveal a little about who I am and my interests through my choice of portfolio. I will be actively engaging with rural communities throughout New Zealand over the coming year.

As a youth growing up in the small Canterbury country town of Pleasant Point, I spent a lot of time working on farms and in a shearing gang. I realised at an early age that farming is the backbone of New Zealand.

The other thing I have done is ask our up-and-coming new MP Meka Whaitiri to take the lead in a new water portfolio. This will ensure issues around water get sufficient priority through our caucus.

Meka is Labour's MP for the Maori electorate of Ikaroa Rawhiti and a former chief executive of Ngati Kahangunu, which is developing significant interests in the Hawke's Bay.

So, why is Labour prioritising water now?

Climate change means the West Coast is getting wetter and the East Coast is getting drier. There will be more droughts and a need for better water management and more sophisticated methods to combat drought.

Water scarcity will become an increasingly important issue and one that will feature strongly in political debate.

There have already been several high profile and contentious debates about water in recent years.

In 2010 the National Government rode rough-shod over the democratic rights of Canterbury voters and sacked the ECan regional council. Fourteen elected councillors were fired for failing in their duty to efficiently manage water.

Issues around access to water and customary title have ended up in court following the Government's plans to partially privatise energy companies such as Mighty River Power and Meridian.

Debates over water ownership have opened a hornet's nest of Treaty claims.

Previously when power state-owned enterprises were fully owned by the Crown there was no need to crystallise Treaty of Waitangi rights. But when privatised, access to water becomes a vehicle for private shareholders' profits and iwi are asking questions about whether their rights have been abridged.

The latest water controversy is the mess around the Ruataniwha dam and Conservation Minister Nick Smith's ham-fisted intervention in the process.

Minister Smith appears to have stepped into the process, resulting in the Department of Conservation turning a 34-page draft into a two-paragraph final submission which failed to raise concerns about growing nitrate levels.

The Minister then appears to have been less than frank describing the timing of his interventions and actions. It could cost him his job.

However, the most important reason we are prioritising water is because its management is crucial for the health and wellbeing of the farming sector.

Labour wants to progress the work of the Land and Water Forum and support collaborative processes to better manage our water resources.

We will work in partnership with rural communities to ensure appropriate water storage and management to buttress farmers from drought risks.

Doing so will require significant capital investment. We want to work with farming communities to determine how that can be funded.

We will create win-wins for our primary industries so farmers can flourish, our environment can be sustained and our public finances be protected.

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