John Armstrong: Water exports a lightning rod for voter dissatisfaction

One question has lingered in the backdrop to September's general election: Will the National Party find itself incurring the same sort of voter backlash which installed Donald Trump in the White House and uninstalled Britain from the European Union?

Health Minister Nick Smith says the business of bottling water makes up a tiny fraction of what NZ's water resources are used for. Source: Breakfast

With the countdown to polling day about to be measured in weeks rather than months, Bill English, while keeping his fingers strictly crossed, has had reason to feel increasingly confident that he will not fall victim to the tide of populism which has engulfed neo-liberal leaders like him across the globe.

The opinion polls still have National enjoying just as comfortable a margin over its rivals as had been the case before the change in prime ministers.

The economy continues to hum along nicely. There is no discernible mood for change.

Enter Nick Smith. The Environment Minister's extraordinarily inept handling of the acutely sensitive matters arising from the export of bottled water invited the very backlash that English would have thought he was escaping.

Smith claims to have an open mind when it comes to imposing a requirement that bottling companies pay a royalty on the water they currently extract from bores and aquifers for next to nothing.

In one swoop, Smith managed to turn charging for water into the hottest of election issues. - John Armstrong

But the minister's every utterance has been geared by his obsession with proving to the populace that charging for water is bound to generate inequities that make the whole idea unviable.

Smith looked like he was siding and sympathising with foreign-owned companies who effectively have an unwritten licence to print money.

To make matters even worse, Smith ridiculed those taking the contrary view to him.

In one swoop, Smith managed to turn charging for water into the hottest of election issues. 

It is not an issue which on its own will cost National the election, however.

The export of fresh water has instead served as both a lightning rod and a safety valve for a deeper and wider dissatisfaction felt by voters - one they are reluctant to discuss with pollsters but one which exposes National's electoral vulnerability.

In the minds of many New Zealanders, the latter-day gold rush which the export of bottled water has become serves as further evidence that the country is becoming ever more what might be termed as a "soft touch" for foreigners. 

Those New Zealanders are heartily sick of it.

They are sick of foreigners with deep pockets gobbling up large chunks of residential property in Auckland. They are sick of foreigners with even deeper pockets buying up high country sheep stations in the South Island.

They are sick of less well-heeled immigrants arriving in ever higher numbers and shutting locals out of the housing market, while placing added pressure on already overly-stretched public services. 

They feel sick at the thought that New Zealand citizenship may be on offer to the highest Silicon Valley-based bidder. - John Armstrong

They are sick of the moral bankruptcy displayed by large foreign companies paying no tax on the vast profits they are making from their New Zealand operations. 

They feel sick at the thought that New Zealand citizenship may be on offer to the highest Silicon Valley-based bidder. 

They are going to feel even sicker when large water tankers park themselves off the beaches of the West Coast and start syphoning off vast volumes of snow-melt at virtually no cost.

Someone will be feeling very chipper, however. All of the above is a script which might have been written for Winston Peters.

So far this year, however, the New Zealand First leader has avoided ratcheting up the rhetoric. 

He has good reason not to do at this stage of proceedings. 

In past elections, he has hit the hustings early only to see his party peaking too soon.

There is also a lesson for him in last week's election in Holland.

If he sounds too Trump-like, he may only succeed in persuading those in younger age groups to stop boycotting conventional politics and instead go out and vote in order to thwart him.

'The public mood can suddenly turn against a third term government without apparent rhyme or reason'

The beneficiaries would be Labour and the Greens.

Those two parties could do themselves no harm by talking a lot tougher and pushing more hardline policies which address voters' feelings of alienation and loss of control of the country's values, resources and identity.  

For his part, English has done what he can to get water off the election agenda. He overruled Smith and instructed the Ministry for the Environment's technical advisory committee to investigate the feasibility of making bottling companies pay royalties.

English admitted he was bowing to public pressure. That was an important thing for him to say.

John Key made it a cardinal rule of his administration that not only would he listen to the people, he would show the people that he was responding to what they were saying.

English needed to show he is applying the same formula.  He needed to reassure voters that Smith's arrogance was an aberration - and not a new norm for National.

The stark reality for National, however, is that the margin between the party governing largely unfettered and being hogtied by Peters is very small.

As Labour found to its cost at the 2008 election, the public mood can suddenly turn against a third term government without apparent rhyme or reason.

English may well end up regretting that he did not put Smith out to pasture when he reshuffled the Cabinet on becoming prime minister late last year.

But the pair are not just close friends. They are political blood brothers. And blood is thicker than water.