The dispute over Maori water rights could be the best opportunity the NZ National Government has of winning over the public to asset sales.
Issues on the public agenda morph subtly over time. People start them and twist them to suit their arguments and objectives.
A skill of PR is to understand why this happens and what they could change into – and use that to political advantage.
A recent NZ example is the Bronwen Saunders ACC issue, in which a beneficiary of state accident welfare was mistakenly sent private details of other ACC clients. The issue shifted all over the place, and ended up twisted by Government opponents into being an example of ACC’s philosophy of ‘forcing’ people off welfare.
The sale of shares in state assets has just done the same thing. The dispute has been over the principle of whether State should sell assets, whether people supported it, and variations on whether the sale would work.
The sale is now being challenged through the Waitangi Tribunal, by Maori interest in water rights – as some of the assets are companies that own hydro dams.
Based on the false assumption that any controversy is bad, most pundits in the political class quickly fell into thinking the Maori dispute is a bad thing for National.
Opportunist political strategists might say the development couldn’t have been better.
Firstly, it’s a distraction.
National has failed to convince the public that the mixed ownership model is a good idea. Doubts have also been raised about whether there is enough discretionary investment money available among consumers to buy shares. Moving onto a deeper nationally divisive issue is a god-send.
Secondly, Mighty River Power could be turned into the biggest political “dog whistle” for forty years.
The Maori dimension gives National a chance to use the asset sales as a bold expression of the majority belief that the State owns and controls the nations assets.
The previous Prime Minister, Helen Clark, showed the popularity power of facing down Maori rights to Foreshore and Seabed. The vast majority of public believe water should not be owned, and is best overseen by the State.
Key is far more tentative than Helen Clark, because he doesn’t like getting offside with people, and because National still thinks it needs the Maori Party.
So he has taken it gently – saying it will consider the Tribunal conclusion, but is not bound by it.
Knowing its own constituency, the Maori Party is indignant and stroppy.
It’s hard to be sure that Key fully appreciates his core constituency. Until now he has operated on the basis that his constituency is every New Zealand citizen. Admirable, but hard to please.
An awkward stick in the spokes is that National gave Clark a hard time over her approach to the Foreshore issue, even though every National MP we knew then philosophically supported it. Never mind, the political past can be easily shrugged off.
National has the option of turning the sale of Might River Power into a vote-winning symbolic nose-thumbing at Maori interests. But it’s not John Key’s style. In which case, he may well lose public confidence over water rights and asset sales together.