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Energy and Revenue Minister Judith Collins has dismissed questions of iwi or any other ownership of water, saying it is not a finite resource as it falls from the sky.
Ms Collins appeared with other MPs on a resources panel at the Deloitte-BusinessNZ election conference at Te Papa in Wellington today.
"If you consider... that nobody owns the water, then that is pretty clear as soon as you start saying you do own water, then you have property rights, which then have all the ramifications - whether it is iwi or anybody else - relating to those rights," Ms Collins said in response to a question from the floor.
"We don't believe that water is a finite resource, because every day, particularly if you are in Auckland, it rains. So we have worked out where it comes from."
Labour says it will use the revenue generated by water royalties to clean up rivers, streams and lakes in partnership with councils, but charging royalties does not assume ownership.
Labour MP Phil Twyford told the BusinessNZ conference that his party would not shy away from the water rights issue.
"We don't think that in the 21st century the fact that water falls from the sky in Auckland or Wellington doesn't mean we should manage the use of that. We need a modern way that manages all the demands that we place on water as a society and economy," Mr Twyford said.
"We all own water, and some people have interests in water - that are not necessarily property rights. We need a system to better manage those interests. We can't shy away from this issue. And as a country I think we are up for the task of having this conversation about how we manage and negotiate our way through this."
Mr Twyford said Labour was committed to that process, including working with iwi and the Waitangi Tribunal if necessary.
"And if there's one thing we have learned from the Foreshore and Seabed process was that when you deny people access to the rule of law, things don't generally end up that well."