Opposition to Three Waters reforms doesn’t wash with Mahuta: councils and the public should just pipe down

National MP Nicola Willis – we trust – learned a wee bit more about the Government’s Three Waters reforms this morning than she learned from Finance Minister Grant Robertson at Question Time in Parliament yesterday.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta today confirmed her determination – and the Government’s – to over-ride widespread public disquiet and local authority objections.  She will press ahead in establishing four publicly owned water entities to take over and look after  our drinking, waste and storm water infrastructure.

“These reforms have been long signalled. In our manifesto we committed to tackling big issues that others have long neglected in order to future-proof New Zealand. We are taking action to ensure safe, clean water for all communities in New Zealand for generations to come, protecting households from ballooning costs, and better preparing for the compounding impacts of climate change,” Nanaia Mahuta said.

Here’s hoping the water that flows from the taps in the restructured system is more palatable than the answer we got when we visited the Labour Party website for whatever it had to say about water reform in its 2020 manifesto.

We typed “water” into a search function box only to be advised:

Our Policies

The Labour Party Manifesto 2020

General Election 2020

Sorry, there are no results for water – clear the filter and try again.

We don’t know if Nicola Willis had a similar experience.

We do know that, on behalf of Mahuta in Parliament yesterday, Robertson replied to Willis’s questions on this topic.

The Government has been engaging with local government on the three waters proposals and related governance arrangements “for some considerable time”,  he said.  It would continue to do so.

The Government’s proposal is that local authorities are the owners of the entities on behalf of their communities. This proposal also includes legislative safeguards to ensure that these entities stay in public ownership, Robertson said.

“… local authorities will be the owners collectively on behalf of their communities. It is also very important for us on this side of the House to make sure we protect the public ownership of these entities lest the National Party ever get in Government and try and hock them off.”

Willis then asked how ratepayers would have direct influence over the water entities in the way they do now over their elected councils “when in a typical entity up to 20 councils would be represented by just six seats on a regional representative group?”

Co-governance that brings unelected Maori tribal leaders into administrative positions was hinted at in the Minister’s response:

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: On behalf of the Minister, the member has answered her own question. The regional representative group will cover the councils. It will also cover mana whenua in the area. The important thing for the member to consider here is whether or not she thinks that the way water assets in New Zealand have been managed over previous decades is adequate, and I think the member, of all people, would realise that water assets in New Zealand have not been well managed. The status quo is not working. If we stick to the status quo it will cost thousands of dollars on ratepayers, and the member just might want to think about the good people of Wellington who want their water to be better than it is now.

 Then came questions about what (at that time) was being rumoured:

Nicola Willis: Will the Minister, as rumoured, announce plans this week to legislate to require all local authorities to give up their water assets for a “nationwide all-in model”, as preferred by her Government?

Hon Chris Hipkins: Point of order, Mr Speaker. Is rumour now adequate authentication of material for the purposes of supplementary questions?

SPEAKER: If I thought it was necessary for the substance of the question, then the answer would have been no. But, actually, it was a superfluous, unnecessary addition that didn’t actually affect the sense of the question and therefore I chose not to be officious and rule it out. There’s a new liberal, reasonable me.

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: On behalf of the Minister, the Government continues to work with local government around making sure that we involve as many councils as possible as we can in this proposal, and when it comes to rumours, if I believed all of the rumours that I’ve heard around Wellington, the member would already be the leader of the National Party.

The Greens’ Eugenie Sage asked if the Government was considering having more than four entities to provide better community-of-interest representation.

The answer was no, the government is sticking to four.

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: On behalf of the Minister, we have put out our proposal for the four entities. We believe that that is the best aggregation of those assets to provide New Zealanders with the kind of water infrastructure that they need and deserve.

Mahuta confirmed this today.

“The case for change is too compelling to ignore.  It is clear that without the establishment of these publicly-owned entities we will continue to see a frail network and contaminated water in many communities.”

She injected an element of alarmism into her explanation.

“To delay will only push the problem on, increase future household costs and put livelihoods at risk.”

Then there were some big numbers to bemuse us.

It is estimated $185 billion is needed to fix, upgrade and maintain New Zealand’s water services over the next 30 years, to ensure that critical water infrastructure is maintained.

“New Zealanders simply cannot afford to follow the status quo facing costs of between $1900 and $9000 over the next 30 years, depending on location. Under reform proposals with four entities those figures significantly reduce to between $800 and $1640, saving each household thousands of dollars,” said Nanaia Mahuta.

“Local councils are trying to deal with the upkeep of aging infrastructure, which is literally crumbling in some of our biggest cities. They face the additional strains of growing population, climate change resilience and extreme weather events, as well as competing for a limited number of skilled workers to do the job.

“It would be irresponsible to pour taxpayers’ money into propping up a broken system, or let households face unprecedented rises in water costs. Currently 43 of the 67 councils do not have the revenue to cover their water services operating expenditures at the moment, let alone once the infrastructure starts failing.

Mahuta had nothing to say about the 50:50 co-governance arrangements that will give Maori tribal leaders the same decision-making clout as representatives of the country’s elected and democratically accountable local authorities on the four water-management bodies.

She said only that:

Work is under way to establish a working group of local government, iwi and water industry experts to work through elements of entity design. The group will work through the enhancements to entity design and look at the governance and accountability arrangements of the entities, as well as provide an opportunity for public participation and consultation. 

She was emphatic that:

“It is a bottom line for the government that the entities remain in public ownership.” 

And:

“We will continue to work with councils and ensure that local participation is evident in the critical next phase.”

But where’s the voice of rate-paying – or tax-paying – citizens?

“As we look to next steps, I will be introducing legislation to progress the establishment of the entities. The Select Committee process will provide an opportunity to get public feedback on the reforms,” said Nanaia Mahuta.

Alas, Mahuta’s track record in this department is dubious, especially when she decides an issue has been debated and discussed for long enough.

Remember the legislative process that was employed to rush into law the legislation that denies citizens the right to petition for support to challenge council decisions to establish Maori wards?

She concluded: 

Cabinet has also tasked the Department of Internal Affairs with establishing a unit to focus on the successful implementation of these reforms. This unit will work with the local government sector, iwi, water industry and other stakeholders to ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangements. 

Further information can be found at https://www.dia.govt.nz/Three-Waters-Reform-Programme

 

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