Discussion on vital resources is too important for racist rhetoric.

When it comes to stirring up controversy in Aotearoa, the race card is by far the easiest to play. Use overly simplistic language, false logic and tenuous connections to convince New Zealanders that Maori are making a grab for a significant resource and hey presto! Cue national outrage.

Throw in a catchy slogan using the words "iwi" and "Kiwi" and just wait for the letters to the editor to roll in. Scaremongering wrapped in pithy sound bites designed to validate racist sentiment - it's thoroughly tired and uninspired, but works every time.

The most recent issue to get the "more to Kiwi than iwi" treatment - from a disaffected group of extreme, right-wing, former politicians - is water rights.

The conversation around water in New Zealand has been bubbling for years. As a nation, our relationship with water is profound. Water sustains us, our ecosystems and our environment; we use it to generate power; our agriculture and tourism sectors depend on it, and many New Zealanders, Maori, Pakeha or otherwise, have deep connections to our rivers, lakes and coastlines. We are blessed to have an abundance of water, but it is increasingly under threat.


Our growing population, the intensification of housing, farming and industry, climate change, and the general march of progress place increasing demands on our waterways and supplies. Among the effluent, run-off, algae and chemicals, the corporate bottling plants, farmers, tourism operators, and power companies, there's something in the water, and it ain't pretty.

The questions we face about how water is allocated, what measures are taken to protect and purify it and who deserves to profit from its use are serious considerations that affect all New Zealanders. The future of our water resources is something we should be talking about.

Which is precisely what is happening. The 2014 policy statement for freshwater management is up for review this year, and there is a general feeling that it is time to establish a national strategy on water management. The Government has entered into extensive consultation with stakeholders, including its Treaty partners among many others.

For over a decade the Crown has recognised that Maori have interests in water - interests that are supported by the common law custom of Native Title. As far as laws go, it's an old one, imported from Britain and developed over centuries of interaction with different indigenous peoples. Its basic tenet is that a change in sovereignty doesn't automatically mean a change in property ownership. In our local context, it means Maori have rights and interests in land and water until they voluntarily decide to gift, sell or assign them.

Common law also states that no one owns water, and much of the concern around the ownership of water stems from the idea that someone could seek to exclude others from using it. The notion of private ownership or exclusive licensing, however, is British, not Maori. Maori, as a collectivist culture, traditionally view ownership as something that is held by a community.

The Waitangi Tribunal has already established that the non-commercial use of water by New Zealanders does not constitute a Treaty breach, so the idea that Maori will prevent others from accessing or using water is pure alarmism. A parallel can be found in the Foreshore and Seabed debate: did Maori stop Kiwis going to the beach? No. Ironically, New Zealand's private beaches seem to be mostly in Pakeha ownership, like the one we just bought back. Trying to exclude others from accessing resources, along with the notion of private property, are wholly European ideas.

The traditional Maori ideas closest to that of ownership are more concerned with guardianship, protection and respect of our natural resources. Those concerns are at the fore of the discussions around water rights - a vital point that is lost in racist knee-jerk reactions, which neglect to consider that Maori interests in protecting our waterways are likely aligned to the views of many New Zealanders. I mean, who among us want our rivers and lakes to be polluted and depleted? Surely we can all agree that looking after our vital national resources is common sense.

Economically, Maori have the right to the development of their interests, though, as recognised by the Waitangi Tribunal in 2012, and this is a secondary consideration to the protection of natural resources. With huge multinational companies such as Coca-Cola bottling and selling our freely available water for profit, and the agriculture sector using huge amounts of water while being a huge polluter of our waterways, the current economic management of our water is far from perfect.

Absent from the dialogue is the fact that Maori models of economic and business development, with their strong focus on environmental protection and respect, could actually help us to develop a sustainable framework. So why is it that the mere presence of Maori at the brainstorming table inspires a group of ex-politicians to spend thousands of dollars placing hysterical advertisements in national newspapers? It seems to be the very fact that the Government is talking to Maori that offends these people. How on earth do they expect us to move forward as a society if we don't communicate with each other about issues that concern us all?

Lost in the racially-charged discourse is the fact that Maori have been involved in the protection of waterways for generations. As a group, Maori bring a huge amount of knowledge, value and mana to the conversation. As the Government has already acknowledged in undertaking consultation and collaboration, this discussion cannot be about "us and them", it has to be about planning for the future together to protect our most vital resource.

Frankly, in 2016, we should be long past the iwi versus Kiwi rhetoric. It is ugly, reductive and demeans us all. Whether we are iwi, Kiwi or both, we all want what's best for New Zealand. Let's work together and focus on that.