Jacinda Ardern was very happy to front the Three Waters campaign in its early stages. But after a disastrous $3.5 million PR ad campaign, vocal opposition from most councils, and a $2.5 billion sweetener thrown back in her face as a “bribe” in mid-July, she exited stage left, leaving the heavy lifting to her ninth-ranked Cabinet minister, Nanaia Mahuta.
Now, in the wake of Mahuta’s announcement on October 27 that all of the nation’s 67 councils will be forced into the new arrangement, Waimakariri mayor Dan Gordon and other mayors want a meeting with Jacinda Ardern to discuss their concerns.
Having been told repeatedly by Mahuta that joining Three Waters would be a choice, the councils have not exactly been reassured by her promise that further consultation would be undertaken with local government to ensure adequate governance, representation and accountability of the new water entities to the communities they serve.
Gordon made his feelings clear in a radio interview last week:
“We are really disappointed that the government has ignored the feedback from our councils and community… There is a genuine anger in our community that I’m hearing. I’ve never been approached by so many people on an issue. People are not happy with what’s being proposed.”
In fact, he says, a survey in Waimakariri showed 95 per cent wanted to retain local decision-making, control and influence over their water assets.
Gordon has asked for a “pause” in implementing the reforms, until councils’ and ratepayers’ objections are considered.
He has written a letter to be presented to the Prime Minister and has asked other councils to sign. He says he won’t release the letter publicly until they have had time to consider it.
“Hopefully [Ardern], will help us to get this turned around,” he said.
Asked why he hadn’t requested a meeting with Nanaia Mahuta — who as the Minister of Local Government is driving the reforms — Gordon replied:
“We’ve had meetings with her… and got nowhere. We want a meeting with the Prime Minister, who is the elected leader of our country.”
Ardern is now clearly on the hook over Three Waters. Nanaia Mahuta left the country last Thursday in her role as Foreign Minister and won’t be back until November 28. She will then have to spend a week in managed isolation (followed by isolation at home until the result of a day 9 test has been received).
The legislation for Three Waters is set to be introduced to Parliament in early December. Presumably Mahuta will emerge just in time to do that, and will thus avoid being in the cross-hairs of widespread opposition over the next few weeks as anger at the reforms rolls on.
That leaves Ardern to face the music for the next three weeks. The stakes are high but will she front?
If she doesn’t agree to a meeting with Dan Gordon and other mayors, her refusal will fuel a belief that Mahuta is calling all the shots in pushing through Three Waters (which includes giving iwi 50 per cent co-governance of the nation’s water infrastructure in the four regional entities).
If she does agree to a meeting, she will undoubtedly be obliged to defend breaking the promise to allow councils to opt out.
Whether a meeting happens or not, however, it is a damning stain on Ardern’s prime ministership that so many mayors — and voters — haven’t been able to get answers to pressing questions just a month before a bill confiscating ratepayers’ assets is due to be introduced to Parliament.
Everyone deserves to be given full answers to these questions, and particularly why councils were led to believe their input would be considered when it has become glaringly obvious that was not true.
Unfortunately for Ardern, she cannot pretend to have clean hands in this matter — leading to the obvious question:
“What did the Prime Minister know about the consultation with councils being fake and when did she know it?”
When she was asked on rural radio show The Country on September 29 by host Jamie Mackay whether Three Waters was a fait accompli, she couldn’t skate away from the question quickly enough.
Mackay: “Three Waters… is this a done deal, because I note jobs are already being advertised?”
In a clumsy attempt to wash her hands of the problem, Ardern — in the classic Pontius Pilate manoeuvre beloved of cornered politicians everywhere — replied:
“Look, the councils are responsible for their own employment and matters in that regard.”
Then — having tacitly admitted that jobs were already being advertised while implying it was nothing to do with her — she ricocheted directly to:
“What we have absolutely said is that we do need to respond to, you know, what this all stems from: the 2016 Havelock North drinking water inquiry.”
The Prime Minister’s obvious evasiveness — a full month before council feedback was due — made it clear Three Waters was already a “done deal” and that she knew it.
Furthermore, as former long-time mayor of Christchurch Garry Moore has noted, the Cabinet decision to force all councils to join the Three Waters scheme was agreed several days before the summary of council feedback was to be presented to the minister.
The Prime Minister can’t claim to be unaware of this. And it would be very interesting to see whether she would try applying the same shade of lipstick to that particular pig’s snout as Mahuta did.
In an interview last week, Taxpayers’ Union executive director Jordan Williams asked Mahuta:
“You signed off a Cabinet paper on the reforms on 18 October. Four days later, your office received a summary of council submissions. Was your consultation a sham?”
Mahuta advised Williams she had received “regular feedback from DIA and LGNZ through that [consultation] period” — as if progress reports by the Department of Internal Affairs and Local Government NZ are the same as councils providing formal feedback on a due date.
Irrespective of the contents of the mayors’ letter, there are other significant questions about Three Waters that many would like the Prime Minister to answer, given that her minister won’t.
Prominent among these is whether iwi will have the right to extract royalties under the new set-up.
On November 2, RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan asked that question on Nine to Noon and Mahuta simply avoided answering.
Jordan Williams raised the same question and Mahuta — as is her habit — answered a question that hadn’t actually been put to her.
Williams: “Can you absolutely assure us — or will you be putting into legislation — restrictions on paying iwi groups water royalties?”
Mahuta’s windy reply was accurately summarised by the Taxpayers’ Union as:
“We have to prevent privatisation. Iwi cannot sell the assets. Iwi care about the long term.”
The only conclusion to be drawn from Mahuta’s repeated evasiveness is that, yes, iwi will indeed receive royalties (which are, of course, an attribute of ownership that will be denied to everyone else).
Williams didn’t fare any better when he asked Mahuta why 50:50 co-governance with iwi was required over the water assets.
Williams: “Why is the Treaty partnership relevant when we’re not talking about the water? We’re talking about the pipes and assets that ratepayers have paid for over generations.”
Mahuta described this as “an excellent question” before, once again, not answering the question. Her expansive and inconclusive reply was summarised by the Taxpayers’ Union as:
”Iwi will achieve better environmental and drinking water outcomes for the whole community.”
It would be extremely interesting to have the mayors put these questions to Ardern and to relay her responses to us — in the hope that might clarify matters.
Of course, the lingering question that will never be answered directly is why the “high-level communications plan” attached to the 18 October Cabinet paper has been ignored.
The plan explicitly recommended that to be “successful” the reforms would need “strong, visible leadership (i.e., Prime Minister, Deputy PM and Local Government Minister)”. Why then has Ardern absented herself so obviously from the public debate and left it nearly entirely to Mahuta?
Is her obvious lack of enthusiasm in backing Three Waters because it is so disastrously unpopular that her strategists are keen for her to distance herself from it?
Or have the reforms been forced on her by her Māori caucus and they won’t let her back down — which would be her usual swift response to any policy that looked like it might cost her the 2023 election?
In short, is the Prime Minister trapped between electoral disaster and the relentless ambitions of her Māori caucus?
- 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.