Greens gag on water bottling consents – but has anyone talked with Murupara Maori?

Hard on the heels of a Chinese water bottling company being given approval to buy land to expand its operations in the eastern Bay of Plenty…

(a) It was granted the resource consents it needs; and

(b) Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson popped up on Maori Television to express sympathy with local iwi who had opposed the granting of the consents.

Maori Television reported that the Government had given approval for “the Chinese bottling giant” to purchase spring water near Whakatāne and export more than one billion litres of drinking water each year.

Actually, it was approval to buy land.

Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage and Associate Finance Minister David Clark have granted an application under the Overseas Investment Act 2005 for Creswell NZ Ltd to purchase land to expand the existing Otakiri Springs water bottling plant near Whakatane.

The decision is conditional on the company providing an additional 60 fulltime jobs and getting the resource consents it needs under the Resource Management Act (RMA).

The granting of these consents – a matter for the Bay of Plenty Regional Council to determine – was announced yesterday.  

Independent commissioners Rob van Voorthuysen and Antoine Coffin were appointed to hear and determine the resource consent applications on behalf of Bay of Plenty Regional Council and Whakatāne District Council.

Consents Manager Reuben Fraser says the application was publicly notified and went through a robust process.

The Land Information Minister’s role in the decision-making process has had fascinating consequences.

A member of the Green Party, Sage has been excoriated by party members for giving permission to Creswell  – owned by China’s Nongfu Spring Co Limited – to buy the rural land it needs.

The Green Party has long campaigned against overseas companies taking water for bottling, especially without a levy, and for local Maori to be involved in water bottling decisions.

The Greens had campaigned on putting a charge on water bottling at last year’s election and still hope to introduce such an impost.

But Sage must work within the law as it is, not the law which her supporters might want, and it was beyond her authority to veto the application by taking environmental or Treaty of Waitangi concerns into account.

As she explained:

“The application satisfies the criteria in the Act and we put in special conditions around enforcement if the company doesn’t provide those 60 jobs on site on the land in Whakatāne then they will be liable and potentially have to sell their investment.”

But a post Sage placed on her official Facebook page about the decision has received 1000 or so comments – mostly negative – since it was posted.

Samples of green egregiousness:

  • “How can 1 person have such power! Absolute peanut move.”
  • “NO MORE” you morons, where are your promises. “
  • “That’s not the representation that Kiwis were asking or expecting from the greens. What a huge let down.”

Davidson has acknowledged there is “widespread concern” in the party;  the decision is “against party kaupapa and policy” and supporters are unhappy, but there is nothing the Greens can do.

The situation is well summed up at No Right Turn under the heading The harsh reality of government

Yesterday Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage granted a consent under the Overseas Investment Act for a Chinese water bottling company to buy land near Whakatane, effectively allowing them to suck the Otakiri Springs dry for foreign profit. Green Party members are naturally upset because the consent flies in the face of local Treaty claims and is contrary to party policies aimed at ending foreign water-theft, or at least charging a fair resource rental for it.

Unfortunately here they’re up against the harsh reality of government – namely that being in government doesn’t mean you get to do what you want.

Our Ministers are not despots, and have to obey the law – and the law on granting foreign companies consent to purchase sensitive land is very specific and doesn’t let the Minister refuse consent just because her party wants her to. And because the law does not include a Treaty clause (or any respect for Maori rights), she couldn’t refuse on those grounds either.

Basically, Sage had no choice but to grant the consent – and if she had refused it, the decision would likely have been overturned by judicial review.

If the Greens want this to change, they need to change the law – and that means negotiating with their coalition partners, both to obtain the necessary parliamentary majority to make it happen, and to get space in the legislative calendar against all the other things the government wants to do. Until that happens, the Minister just has to obey the law. This will no doubt mean making decisions she doesn’t agree with, but that’s the reality of government for you.

But there is another aspect to the story, apparently overlooked in Davidson’s interview with Maori Television when she said:

“I sympathise with local Maori of Whakatāne. I can understand their disappointment and that’s entrenched in the law.  But I will continue my work to change the law in parliament.”

But what about the Maori of Murupara? Has she chatted with them about their position?

We ask, because Radio New Zealand has reported: 

The Murupara community is hoping an iwi-supported proposal to build the country’s biggest water bottling plant could revitalise the once-thriving regional town.

Ngāti Manawa has agreed to lease land for two plants that would export 18 million litres of water per day from an aquifer near the Bay of Plenty town.

Some in the community believe this a chance for the community to reverse its economic misfortune of the past.

A major privatisation of the forestry sector in the mid 1980s has resulted in the once-thriving town of Murupara having an unemployment rate of 27 per cent, more than four times the national average.

Iwi leaders hope that could drastically change if the town becomes home to the country’s largest water bottling plant.

They believe the project – estimated to create around 1500 jobs – is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure a decent future for their members.

Ngāti Manawa kaumatua Pem Bird said water was now liquid gold.

“We’ve been on struggle street for a while now since rogernomics – full employment to no employment overnight – so it represents that opportunity for us.”

Pem Bird said Ngāti Manawa would have to ensure good kaitiakitanga or guardianship practices were followed.

Ngāti Manawa and partner company Murupara No 1 are working with several investors, including NZ Aquifer, and other local and overseas interests.

The consent application to the regional council from Murupara No 1 and Murupara No 2 to access groundwater from a source near Murupara for bottling was not accepted for processing because of a lack of information, a council official told Point of Order. 

The group later submitted a consent application for the installation and testing of bores. The outcome is awaited.

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