Cleaning house, English-style: Water was just the start

Last week National made some promises about water, and copped plenty of flak on the way. That move signalled the soft launch of National's election campaign, as it starts to tidy up the policies that put victory in September at risk

Old mates Bill English and Nick Smith dragged media to a muddy – but "good enough" – stream in west Auckland last week to announce plans to clean up rivers by 2040. But what the event really signified was National starting to clean up its political house before this September's election.

The announcement was an attempt to dam the steady stream of concern about water cleanliness in this country and stop it turning into a vote-losing river for National. English and Smith promised 90 percent of our country's rivers will be "swimmable" by 2040; a big step up from the "wadeable" promised at the 2014 election.

Smith argued this was the "third phase" of National's work to improve freshwater management, building on the 2011 National Policy Statement and the 2014 National Objectives Framework. But it's hard not to see this rather as the first phase of the party's cleaning house before the election.

Fact is, the very wording "wadeable" rivers is terrible and imples you've given up on something that's part of the Kiwi dream, even if you haven't been near a river for years. And the government acknowledges as such, with this wording in its first paragraph:

"This plan is about protecting and enhancing this Kiwi way of life for future generations"

I remember as a child stopping along the Desert Rd, as we drove north for various and sundry family holidays, to drinking the crisp, clean mountain stream water. We'd dip a cup into a stream and all sip it like it was the crispest, cleanest beverage ever invented. And it was. Now we'd be warned away by health officials.

Where the politics has gone wrong is that, to make any kind of useful promise, National has had to do two things. First, they've "kicked the can down the road", to use the old phrase associated with John Key. None of the promises need to be kept until 2040, when this crop of politicians will be well and truly gone(down river).

Second, Smith and co have had to change the scientific definition of "swimmable". Straight away that makes it seem dodgy.

Under the new plan, the grade criteria for water quality will shift.

  • Water that had a 'B Grade' and carried a 'moderate risk of infection' in 2014 would get an 'A Grade' under the proposed new criteria.
  • While an 'A Grade' standard for E. coli was 260/100mL of water, this would change to 540/100mL of water.

Talking about kicking that can down the road, the other part of the political management involved in this announcement is the way it avoids the two issues around water that are even thornier than cleanliness: Allocation and rights.

The chart in the government's document, puts "allocation" (how much water farmers – and it's farmers in particular – get to use) in the Post-2017 colummn and "iwi rights and interests" in both the present and future columns. They're clearly trying to take those heated debates off the table until after the election. At least.

And there will be more. If you want to step back and see this water announcement in context, it's that National seems to have run its finger over what it considers its weaknesses ahead of the election. It will now go through one by one to try to spruce them up.

Two issues in particular are certain to be on that list; both come with plenty of risk attached. 

First, there's hip pocket economics. If they stick to the Key plan (and Key seems to have hinted at enough before laving to ensure they don't have much choice), that will involve some sort of "family package".

As eager as National's base will be for tax cuts, it seems the plan is not to go down that path. At least, not tax cuts alone. English has always been a bit dubious about them and even Key seemed to have come round to an acceptance that 'block of cheese' cuts have limited political mileage, and in some ways only empower its opponents.

Cue Key's comments last year about more support for poor working families. Now English is left to walk that fine line balancing the expectations of party loyalists and swing voters. You'd imagine National will deal with that one in May, at Budget time.

But the more crucial move will be on immigration. Today, Statistics New Zealand reported yet another record month; with arrivals topping 71,000 in the year ending January 31. People arriving as permanent and long-term migrants outnumbered those departing by 128,290 to 56,985 in the latest 12 months - also an all-time high.

Of course Winston Peters instantly complained that 1370 people a week was hurting Kiwi's access to houses, jobs and hospitals.

Having spent recent years singing the praises of this rapidly growing population, and indeed relying on it for a fair portion of the country's economc growth, English will now have to rein it in.

Quite simply, National will want to limit the appeal of New Zealand First ahead of the election and neutralise any talk that it is out of step not only with local opinion, but global political trends. Despite a worrying and growing infrastructure deficit, New Zealand has one of the most open door policies in the OECD and English has long shrugged off concerns about record immigration levels as "a nice problem to have" and a sign of his successful economic management.

Now he is going to have to execute a u-turn and it will be telling to see if he can navigate those as well as his predecessor.

Or, you might say, can he clean house without smashing some of the vases? In a way, you might say the election campaign has just begun.