The Prime Minister is increasingly looking like a political hostage as Nanaia Mahuta presses on with the Three Waters reforms. Graham Adams sees history rhyming as her powerful Maori caucus flexes its muscles.
David Lange is one of the most tragic figures of our modern political history. Highly articulate and entertaining, he was ushered into power in a landslide in 1984 during an economic and financial crisis. Feted as the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century, he dazzled the nation with his wit and intellect.
By the time he resigned in 1989, however, he was seen as a weak and malleable leader who had backed policies he would later regret supporting. Furthermore, the fact that his party did not advertise its radical economic agenda before the 1984 election has tainted the legacy of the Fourth Labour government ever since.
It took a while before it became clear that Lange was using his larger-than-life persona and seductive oratory to sell a transformation of New Zealand’s economic landscape on behalf of a powerful cabal in his Cabinet whose intentions he seemed not to fully comprehend.
Eventually it became obvious that he was the monkey and Roger Douglas and his neoliberal Rogernomes were the organ-grinders. As columnist Bruce Jesson put it in 1986, the charismatic Lange was “perfectly suited to the superficial politics of the television age” but he was “swept along by events beyond his control”.
It seems likely that Ardern will end up being viewed in a similar way. When she was anointed by Winston Peters in 2017, she was feted as the youngest Prime Minister in more than 150 years, before being returned to power three years later in a landslide in response to a pandemic.
Her charisma and glamour are perfectly suited to the superficial politics of the social media age but she is obliged to dance to the tune played by Nanaia Mahuta, Willie Jackson and the Maori caucus — and by the others in her Cabinet, including David Parker and Andrew Little, who support their revolutionary agenda.
The agenda was set out in He Puapua, the blueprint for Maori self-determination. It was commissioned by Cabinet in March 2019 and delivered to Nanaia Mahuta, the Minister for Maori Development, that November.
A highly redacted version was released to the public in October 2020 — nearly a full year after Mahuta first received it. Significantly, not only was its partial release held back until after the general election but Winston Peters says he wasn’t given the report before the election in order to prevent him criticising it during the campaign.
A full version was not released until March this year after repeated requests were made under the Official Information Act.
Ardern has insisted He Puapua is not government policy and most commentators have accepted her assurance entirely at face value — despite the increasing number of its recommendations that have either been enacted or are in the process of being enacted.
For a document that allegedly plays no part in government policy, the coincidences with the changes being rolled out are astonishing. Three Waters is merely the latest instalment.
Interestingly, Ardern has claimed He Puapua was not released publicly for some time “because of a concern that it would be misconstrued as government policy”.
This echoes Roger Douglas’ explanation for why Labour’s manifesto for the 1984 election contained no indication of the radical economic changes that would follow in his Budget. He said the detail was not made available to the public because they wouldn’t have been able to absorb it in the short time available.
If Ardern’s intellect and abilities as a politician are no match for Lange’s — and she is certainly not as persuasive or dedicated at fronting the Maori caucus’ cause as he was for Rogernomics — she nevertheless appears to be just as comprehensively dominated by a cabal for which her popularity provides cover and distraction.
Just as Lange’s brilliant advocacy on the nuclear ships issue provided cover and distraction for Douglas’ economic programme as the public rallied around the government, Covid has united a majority of voters behind Ardern.
While the Prime Minister busies herself with the mechanics of Covid — apparently to the extent of “lying awake at night” trying to work out how the Delta strain got into the community — her Maori colleagues and their Cabinet allies press ahead with pursuing what many see as a separatist, anti-democratic agenda that some fear will ultimately lead to an ethno-state.
As well as Three Waters, this includes setting up a separate Maori Health Authority, easing the path to Maori wards, handing more power to iwi in the conservation estate, in local government, and the Resource Management Act — all of which are driven by a particular interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi that implies an equal partnership between Maori and the Crown.
Ardern is an underwhelming advocate for this programme, never getting much further than describing the Treaty as a ”partnership” and repeating the “TINA” catch-cry of the revolutionaries in Lange’s government — “There Is No Alternative”. Nevertheless, these radical changes are being carried out under her imprimatur and she defends them as best she can.
They are every bit as revolutionary as those of the Douglas-Lange government. Even if history doesn’t repeat exactly, Ardern and her government show that it certainly can rhyme, however imperfectly.
After last Wednesday’s press conference in which Nanaia Mahuta, in her role as the Minister of Local Government, made it clear she would press ahead with her Three Waters reforms despite overwhelming opposition, it has become pretty obvious who really controls this aspect of the government’s policies. The fact that 60 of the nation’s 67 local authorities either strongly oppose the reforms or have serious doubts about them hasn’t dented the minister’s determination to push changes through Parliament one little bit.
You might imagine that Ardern, as a wildly popular Prime Minister, would have been eager to stand alongside Mahuta at the press conference to help sell such a politically fraught policy but the Prime Minister was nowhere to be seen. In fact, she has been very quiet on the issue since July, when she offered a $2.5 billion sweetener to be shared among councils to ease the transition. Once that failed to improve morale, she has largely absented herself from the debate.
Ardern is certainly not a risk-taker or someone who is willing to die in a ditch for unpopular policies. Two years ago, she quickly backed off her cherished capital gains tax in perpetuity as soon as it became clear that she was facing a wall of opposition — just as she did in October with the Auckland Harbour cycle crossing.
She would normally back away from any policy as widely disliked as Three Waters soon after the poll results arrived on her desk. The fact she hasn’t already backed away makes the likelihood of her being the one who is calling the shots on this issue vanishingly small.
And the water reform programme is truly, madly, deeply unpopular. A Curia poll for the Taxpayers’ Union showed only 19 per cent in support with 56 per cent opposed — or three to one against. If the 24 per cent in the “unsure” category were divided in the same proportions, the opposition would weigh in at around 75 per cent.
The party faction that exerts disproportionate control in Ardern’s government has been hiding in plain sight for some time. In May, former MP Tau Henare made it clear on TVNZ’s Q&A panel exactly who was calling the tune. Asked by host Jack Tame what he thought about Willie Jackson securing more than a billion dollars in the Budget for Maori initiatives, Henare replied:
“At the end of the day, what this says is about [Maori] being around the table — in numbers — so that you can say to your mates: ‘Hey, take it or leave it. We can always leave.’”
Left-wing blogger Martyn Bradbury echoed these sentiments:
“It didn’t matter that the Māori Party sat at John Key’s table when John Key owned the table. [But] the Māori Labour caucus reminds Jacinda she owns the table BECAUSE of them.”
The audaciousness of the Three Waters programme makes the heft of the Maori caucus’ power and of its Cabinet allies obvious. One of its principal purposes — and which forms an immoveable bottom line — is to hand 50:50 co-governance to iwi. And, no doubt, the right to extract royalties as well.
He Puapua itself states increased Māori rangatiratanga will require financing and that,
“There are multiple streams from which financial contributions might be sourced, including, for example, levies on resource use where Māori have a strong claim to ownership, such as water.”
Auckland QC Gary Judd came to similar conclusions when he analysed the proposed water reforms. In his analysis he wrote:
“Councils now own drinking water, wastewater and stormwater assets, directly or indirectly. That will change. Only iwi/Māori will have ownership rights. Directly in some respects, indirectly in others. Local authorities will have none.
“Legal scholars argue about what is meant by ownership, but it is certain that if one has no rights in relation to a thing — e.g., no right to use it, to enjoy it, to gain a return from it, to dispose of it, to destroy it, to control it or to control its use — one does not own the thing… The Three Waters proposal has been deliberately designed to give iwi / Māori the predominating governance influence.
“In addition… it was agreed that the water services entity would fund and support capability and capacity of mana whenua within an entity’s boundary to participate in relation to Three Waters service delivery. Bear in mind that getting a return from an asset is a right attributable to an owner. Therefore, the proposal would confer on iwi/Maori, but no one else, a direct attribute of ownership.”
It is telling that Mahuta won’t answer questions about whether iwi will be able to extract royalties under her Three Waters reforms. She also insists that ownership — conceptually, at least — will rest with councils.
However, Climate Change Minister James Shaw made no bones about the matter in an interview two weeks ago. Asked to defend the “rationale” behind giving 50 per cent governance to iwi, Shaw replied:
“I think it is a recognition that, under Te Tiriti of Waitangi, Maori do have proprietary rights and interests in water.”
Asked about Three Waters, Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi made it clear that water is “a taonga that belongs to us”. He has also said that a “Tiriti-centric Aotearoa” would not be “a democracy, because… democracy is majority rules”.
He wants a completely independent Maori Parliament but says he fears the backlash when discussion on how to implement He Puapua is carried out among the wider public.
One of the major objections to Three Waters is its fundamentally undemocratic nature. In the South Island, for example, the government will be handing 50 per cent control of ratepayers’ assets to the wealthy Ngai Tahu iwi.
Despite representing the interests of fewer than 100,000 Maori, unelected Ngai Tahu members will have exactly the same say as representatives of the plethora of councils which fall within Entity D. The boundaries of Entity D are aligned with Ngai Tahu territory covering most of the South Island (minus Nelson and Marlborough) and will include a “connected” population of around 864,000 (including Maori).
In fact, the proposals for any 50:50 co-governance arrangement markedly understate their lopsidedness. As former government relations consultant Barrie Saunders puts it:
“Maori make up around 17 per cent of the population and have their vote like everyone else, but then iwi would get a 50 per cent say on top of that. It’s really quite nifty — unless you believe in democracy.”
As is typical with most successful revolutions, both Lange and Ardern’s governments’ legislative approach to achieving their aims has relied on speed and surprise.
Douglas’ programme of reform was described as a “blitzkrieg”. As Michael Bassett said:
“Speed was enormously important to managing change. As [then-Minister of Labour, State Services and State Owned Enterprises] Stan Rodger would observe years later, sometimes there were so many rabbits loose in the field that opponents of change weren’t sure which to try to shoot.”
This government is similarly ramming through a raft of legislation based on a radical interpretation of the Treaty. So quickly, in fact, that voters can barely keep up — and especially at a time when so much of the public’s attention is firmly fixed on the management of Covid.
And just as the Douglas-Lange government never campaigned for an economic revolution before the 1984 election, the Mahuta-Ardern government never campaigned last year on reshaping society’s institutions to reflect an equal partnership with Maori — whether in health, water infrastructure, local government or any other area.
The question now is whether Ardern will decide that too much of her valuable political capital is going to be burned by the unpopularity of Three Waters and other Maori-centric changes being rammed through Parliament.
Will she call for a pause and a “cup of tea”, as Lange did in 1988 when he unilaterally abandoned Douglas’ flat-tax proposal, only to see his government implode? Or will she continue to acquiesce to the demands of the Maori caucus and its Cabinet allies, and risk poll ratings plummeting as widespread public fury engulfs her government?
When a councillor in our second-biggest city sums up a pervasive sentiment that Mahuta’s announcement was “a dark day for democracy in New Zealand” — adding, “This government has just proven themselves to be a revolting pack of thieving liars”; and when a quote by a provincial councillor accusing the government of being “a deceitful, lying pack of bastards” is plastered across the local paper’s front page and held up in Parliament for all to see, the Prime Minister, by anyone’s reckoning, has a major problem on her hands.
Ardern — like Lange — is caught.
If the Prime Minister frustrates the aspirations of her Maori caucus, she will risk losing the Maori seats Labour holds and possibly wider support in Maoridom as well.
If she continues to indulge them, she will open a clear path to a National-Act government in 2023, given that both parties, smelling blood, have pledged to return the assets to councils.
Three Waters has all the signs of becoming Ardern’s Waterloo.
- Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom. This article was first published by the Democracy Project.