Stuff - Editorial: Water issues have boiled over

NZ First leader Winston Peters is nothing if not persistent. Fresh from being booed and heckled at a farmers' protest in Morrinsville on Monday, he was in Ashburton on Wednesday, peddling much the same message about water and politics. 

It was a variation on Peters' consistent theme that no one but him can be trusted by voters. Certainly not Labour and National, the big parties that may need him after this weekend and that it sometimes seems he exists only to oppose. The dramatic title of his Ashburton speech, "Between the red devil and the deep blue sea", said it all about his belief that he is the only centrist option.

In telling a rural community that "the Labour Party has launched an attack on you and primary export New Zealand", Peters was attempting to widen the so-called urban and rural divide that has become one of the hallmarks of the 2017 election. It has also been a theme of National's negative campaign to claim that people in the country are at ideological odds with people in the cities. 

Peters presented NZ First's water policy in Ashburton. There was boffinish material about the monitoring of water quality, soil nutrients and catchment management. There was a belief that NZ First could reach National's "swimmability" target 10 years early. 

Once Peters was finished criticised Labour's water tax plans, he launched into National's plan, which he argued is even worse. He claimed that National is plotting to give $35 billion in water rights to New Zealand iwi and warned of "brocal" government and the Māori "Browntable". 

Peters' race-based scaremongering is as old as the hills but the new foray into water politics shows just how contentious the issue of water quality has become. Questions about whether water is drinkable or swimmable have extended naturally to discussions about whether polluters should pay, as the Green Party and Gareth Morgan's Opportunities Party both argue. From this context, an argument inevitably grew about whether exporters should be charged for commercial bottled water. 

These water issues were bubbling under until an election provided the perfect opportunity to examine them. But is the urban-rural divide that some politicians have identified and even exploited anywhere near as clear cut as they claim? 

Images from Morrinsville did farmers few favours, making the agricultural sector look hostile and backward. A new survey from Water New Zealand found more nuanced views. It revealed that 89 per cent of New Zealanders think that bottled water companies and similar industries should pay for their water takes. 

More surprisingly, 77 per cent felt that "there should be a cost when taking water from the environment for agriculture and horticulture". That result was "generally consistent across urban, regional and rural areas". The figure dropped to 59 per cent of people supporting a charge for all users who take water from the environment. 

These findings would suggest that New Zealanders are not just ready for greater charges for the commercial use of water, but would even welcome them. They are also a timely reminder that convenient political myths can often obscure more complicated and reasonable realities.