You can tell a lot about how a political party thinks and operates by the way it addresses a problem issue, and, in this election, the question of how to protect our fresh water is proving particularly instructive - and divisive.

National has been in denial that there is a problem, and its reactive and bumblingly inept response (when it finally admitted there might be one) has been to simply shift the goal posts on what is "allowable" pollution.

As a Niwa analysis has pointed out, all the policy really does is reclassify some lakes and rivers as "swimmable" without doing anything much about their levels of pollution. It's a conjuring trick that will inevitably mean more people will get sick from enjoying
themselves in water the Government says is fine, when in reality it isn't.

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Moreover, the headline aspiration of having all major rivers "swimmable" by 2040 is a direct steal of Labour's policy of 2008, nine years late - except Labour planned to actually clean things up instead of fudging it.

Labour has now moved on and is talking about dealing with the causes of water degradation, such as over-stocking, nutrient use, and poor land management in general.

In short, land-use regulation, which is a major hole in New Zealand law - one National doesn't want a bar of because of the perceived potential impact on its farming mates.

But the need to redress this has become urgent, especially given historic "capture" loads of agrichemicals (particularly nitrogen) are beginning to adversely affect the quality of aquifer supplies.

The Greens are well out in front in attempting to legislate to protect water supply through retiring MP Catherine Delahunty's Clean Groundwater Bill. This would give enhanced recognition to aquifers, which oddly are not currently specified as important by the RMA - but are very important to the 40 per cent of New Zealanders (including us in Hawke's Bay) who get their drinking water from them.

They're also at the front when it comes to looking at charging users for water, proposing a 10c per litre levy on water taken for bottling and resale. Given the 73 companies currently with consents to take water for bottling could take some 23 billion litres a year, that surcharge could be a godsend to regional councils and iwi trying to deal with the accumulated effects of two centuries of "flush and forget" mentality.

The argument's complicated by the debate over whether anyone - and if so, who - "owns" water. National say no-one does, but is happy to reap profits (since some of its MPs and major party figures have shares in bottling companies) from the existing regime; and this stance also ignores that water somehow becomes "owned" when it leaves the ground, but without any public recompense.

NZ First also denies any ownership, apparently based more on a desire to keep Maori and foreigners from any cut, since it otherwise supports reform of the water market from today's "first in best served" model to one prioritised by community and commercial need. However it's difficult to see that working without making some sort of distinction about ownership, and therefore public compensation - plus the spectre of commercial litigation.

What's fascinating though is that the push to protect our fresh water based on best environmental practice and public ownership - which should, you would think, be a big vote-winner - is being portrayed instead as somehow wrong merely because commercial interests might have to pay, and the public reap the reward.

With Labour and the Greens both moving to support the public ownership/public benefit model for water, the public itself at least has a clear choice.

*Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.