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.