Mahuta says there’s more talking to be done on three waters reforms – but let’s see if that means she is listening

A bemusing press statement  flowed this morning from the office of Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta on the highly contentious matter of “three waters reforms”.

Under these reforms, the country’s 67 local and regional councils’ drinking, waste and storm water assets would be taken over and administered by four large regional entities, each of which would include iwi leaders with extraordinary co-governing powers.

In return, the government would pay for billions of dollars’ worth of much-needed infrastructure and repairs.

But as the NZ Herald noted two days ago

“… mayors up and down the country are far from convinced, with major reservations about losing local control over such vital assets.”

That report said Mahuta may allow for more council influence in the contentious water reforms,

“… but still refuses to rule out changing the law to force councils to sign up.”

 This further reflected the autocratic determination to press on with Three Waters reforms – regardless of the strength of public and local authority opposition – which Mahuta had expressed in response to questions in Parliament last week.

Barbara Kuriger: Will she pause or halt the three waters reforms given Local Government New Zealand and numerous mayors, councils, and communities across the country have called for her to do so, and, if not, why not?

Hon NANAIA MAHUTA: No. Pausing the conversation around the reform agenda will not change the scale, size, or complexity of the challenge confronting councils. We’ve provided evidence and research that shows that the looming costs facing councils will be unbearable by ratepayers. We’ve also highlighted the need for councils to consider this seriously, because once Taumata Arowai is stood up, higher drinking-water standards and environmental standards are enforced, the several councils that are operating their waste-water treatment plants on expired consents will significantly bear the load of infrastructure investment.

As the latest press statement from Mahuta points out, today marks the final day of the two-month long “engagement” between the Government and local councils on the proposed reforms.

The statement says:

Local Government Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, acknowledged the feedback councils have provided over the engagement period.

But she did not acknowledge that the time frame for “the engagement” had rankled local government leaders or that there has been stiff resistance to the programme she is promoting.

Rather:

“This time was agreed to enable Councils to assess the impact of the proposed reforms on their communities, and the considerable amount of information put forward” said Nanaia Mahuta.

“I acknowledge the wide range of views that have come forward, and want to thank councils who provided constructive feedback for the Government to consider.

“More than 150 meetings and engagements were held with councils, iwi, industry bodies and other stakeholders in August and September to discuss the proposed reforms..

“This follows four years of work on the reforms, including the last 15 months working with local government, industry and iwi through the joint Central-Local Government Steering Committee.

“The challenges facing our water system and services have been around for more than two decades and we need to address them now. We are taking feedback on board, while reaffirming the status quo will not continue. With the passing of the Water Services Act earlier this week, monitoring and enforcement of compliance will increase – communities will not have to put up with second rate water services,” said Nanaia Mahuta. 

But whoa. Have we discerned some readiness to talk further and perhaps be more conciliatory?

Work is under way as part of the July Heads of Agreement between the Government and LGNZ to consider refinements to the proposals within the Government’s bottom lines of good governance, partnership with mana whenua, public ownership and operational and financial autonomy.

 “I have been receiving reports throughout this process and expect a final report in the coming weeks, including any advice on changing aspects of the proposals. Cabinet will then consider the next steps for the three waters reforms, including a process for public consultation.”

And then Mahuta said:

 “This is not the end of discussions between local and central government on these reforms. We are committed to continuing this partnership over the course of the reforms to ensure that present and future generations of New Zealanders have water services that are safe, reliable and affordable,” said Nanaia Mahuta.

Let’s wait and see.  Talking is one thing.  Listening is another.

And (remember?) she wasn’t too conciliatory on a critical matter of democratic governance when she rushed to eradicate citizens’ rights to challenge local government plans to introduce Maori wards.

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