Three Waters : an unnecessary programme that will degrade our democracy with a dubious (and unnamed) form of governance

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta yesterday welcomed the independent Working Group report on the Three Waters Reform Programme.  She insists the programme is necessary to ensure all communities have access to affordable, safe and sustainable drinking, waste and storm water services.  BARRIE SAUNDERS and KARL DU FRESNE – former colleagues of Point of Order’s Bob Edlin – challenge this on their respective blogs and warn of the implications for our democratic structures….  


Three Waters – a totally unnecessary battle

The Three Waters proposal driven by Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta is a totally unnecessary, very divisive battle with local government and the people of New Zealand.  

The focus has been on whether there should be co-governance with iwi leaders, and also, whether it adequately prevents privatisation, which I see as a red herring maybe designed to divert attention from the real issues.  

The critical question is whether the failings of local government are such, that their Three Waters assets should be confiscated by the state, reformulated into four entities, and then handed back into a convoluted governance regime involving iwi and local government nominees.   

Having looked at the papers behind the proposals I do not believe they meet the necessary threshold.  Yes, there are problems, as Local Government NZ has recognised for many years, but they do not in my view justify central government overriding local government in this heavy-handed manner. 

The first real issue is water quality, which the government has dealt to by establishing the water quality agency Taumata Arowai.  It has only just started operating but will have a real role in ensuring New Zealanders have access to quality water across the whole country.   Anyone who says the Three Waters proposal is necessary to ensure quality supplies is either seriously ignorant or just telling lies.  

The Three Waters advertising last year was dishonest in that it implied the nationalisation was required to ensure quality water, when the Taumata Arowai had already been established in law.  That was a shocker for which heads should roll in the public service.    

The second real question is how to finance and manage the three waters systems throughout the country.  Clearly over the next 30 years the capex requirements will be high, maybe $180 billion, but I note many in the sector considered it to be grossly inflated.   Some local authorities may lack the expertise to manage the upgrades required, or have the ability to finance them with their current limits on borrowing.  

Short of local government imposing excessive burdens on their ratepayers or central government underwriting local authority debts, there are a range of options which can be found on the website of the now 31 local authorities opposing the governments’ plans.  Three of these councils are taking legal action.  For more information see:  

If after exhausting all options with local government, which it has not yet done, the Government then decided decisive action was required, it would require a careful plan.  The logical course would be to collaboratively work through the issues with local government and come up with an agreed formula.  I suspect instead of just four entities there would be more like 10, with Auckland City left entirely alone.

Some of the boundaries defy the common-sense test.  Gisborne to Nelson including Wellington is Entity C, which is not rational, particularly when it’s remembered that Horizons in Manawatu is actually split with Entity B.  The logic of Entity C is to accommodate Ngai Tahu, which in the 19th century controlled the South Island outside of the Nelson area.        

At that point the Government might well decide to underwrite the new entities to reduce their borrowing costs.  The alternative, which the Government has decided on, provides the proposed entities with such a level of independence from local government, it can borrow freely.  The massive risk to ratepayers is that insulated from local government politicians the entities will be able to gold-plate their systems, and charge the 100pc captive customers.  No wonder Standard and Poors likes it!!

I see the Government may establish a regulatory agency to ensure this doesn’t happen but I remain sceptical it will be effective.   Monopolists always have good explanations for their cost structure.   I remember been told by the head of NZ Railways, when they employed 23,000, they were about as efficient as they could get.   Now KiwiRail employs fewer than 5000.  Mahuta’s claim Three Waters will create, presumably an additional 6000-9000 jobs, reinforces my scepticism.  

The co-governance concept comes from iwi leaders who rejected the Key Government’s declaration, fresh water belongs to everyone and as representative of the people, it was the Government’s job to regulate usage, in conjunction with local government.  

Fresh water is not the same as dams, pipes and sewage processing, assets built up by local governments since 1840.   The water ownership issue should be dealt with directly by the Government and not conflated with Three Waters.  Mahuta has further deepened suspicion about Three Waters by refusing to declare iwi will not be able to demand water royalties.

The net result is, like Putin’s war on Ukraine, we have a very unnecessary battle within this country to deal with some real but not insurmountable problems.  I hope the National Party commits itself to pressing the reset button, assuming the current Government is too pig headed to do that itself.       

In the meantime, it would be nice if the missing-in-action media, could really drill down into the issues, rigorously analyse the problem, weigh the alternatives and provide some real clarity.   That might regain it some credibility presently lacking on Three Waters.  And while doing that remember, just because people oppose co-governance doesn’t mean they must be racist (as asserted by one writer).

We have a high-quality democracy which is in serious danger of being degraded by a radical interpretation of the Treaty partnership concept.   No one should be surprised when it’s defended.  I would have thought this would be of some interest to the media, or is that too much to expect?

Pssst … don’t mention the iwi

From disgrace to sham to travesty and back again – that pretty much sums up the Three Waters project so far.  (I won’t use the government’s preferred term “reform”, because reform means a change for the better.)

When it became clear last year that Nanaia Mahuta’s pet ideological project faced concerted opposition across a broad front, the government sought to defuse it by setting up an “independent working group” to review the proposed governance arrangements.

The working group’s report is now in, and it has justifiably been slammed for merely tinkering at the edges – hardly surprising, given that the group was stacked with iwi representatives and people broadly sympathetic to the government. (One example is my own mayor, Lyn Patterson, a reliable friend of Labour who told the Wairarapa Times-Age that the report addresses local government’s concerns. Yet her own council recently joined 29 others in opposing Three Waters and looking at alternative proposals.)

The working group’s most significant recommendation is for a restructuring of shareholding arrangements in the proposed governance structure, in the hope this will create an illusion of greater accountability and so mollify opponents – among them, Auckland mayor and former Labour cabinet minister Phil Goff, who is standing firm despite having been on the working party. (Question: if the recommendations didn’t even satisfy one of the group’s own members, why should the rest of us be convinced?)

To appease those who complain that the existing proposals don’t allow sufficient input for local voices, the working party proposes to strengthen the roles of regional representative groups (RRGs) by creating advisory groups (sub-RRGs – I kid you not) that would “feed into the larger body”. So an already opaque and unwieldy governance structure would become still more opaque and unwieldy, and local voices would be safely submerged and rendered impotent.  The Labour Party is very good at this sort of thing, preferring to place its faith in big government rather than allow local democracy to get in the way.

The report also seeks to divert attention away from crucial governance issues to the supposed risk of privatisation of water, which my former colleague Barrie Saunders rightly dismisses as a red herring. Amid all the debate of the past few months, the fear of privatisation has hardly been raised at all.

Most significantly, the working group ignores the elephant in the room (or should I say the taniwha in the whare). The shibboleth of 50-50 Treaty partnership remains central to the project. The report does nothing to address concerns that Three Waters, as it stands, would represent a massive transfer of power and control to unelected and unaccountable iwi interests.

In the longer term that raises profound constitutional implications, because Three Waters could serve as a test run for implementing a radical re-interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi. If the government gets away with it, we should expect the principle of 50-50 co-governance to be extended into other spheres of government.

Already we’re seeing parallel Maori governance structures taking shape in health and education. The Three Waters project will take that a step further. No one should be in any doubt that what’s underway is nothing less than a subversion of democratic principles and a jettisoning of the notion that all citizens enjoy equal rights.

Interestingly, media coverage of the working group’s report – or at least what I’ve seen and heard of it – has deftly skirted around the crucial issue of tribal influence in the Three Waters project by the simple expedient of not referring to it at all. To paraphrase Basil Fawlty, it’s a case of “Don’t mention the iwi”.

Conspiracy theorists are likely to see this as further evidence of the government’s influence over the media via the Public Interest Journalism Fund – and who can blame them? That’s the type of suspicion media outlets inevitably invite when they line up to take the taxpayers’ money on terms dictated by the government, central among which is the insistence on recognition of arbitrarily defined Treaty rights.

Throughout this exercise, a persistent issue has been lack of transparency. At every step along the way, the government has seemed determined to (pardon the pun) muddy the waters.

A good example is the diagram purporting to show how the governance of Three Waters will work, which is a triumph of obfuscation. I defy anyone to make sense of it. There has to be a reason why it’s so convoluted, and I believe that reason is to disguise where true power and control will reside.

The public still has no idea who came up with the idea of four regional “water service entities” – whose territories just happened to be aligned with tribal boundaries – or what the rationale was. That part of the exercise appears to have taken place out of the public view. It emerged fully formed, without public consultation.

In place of transparency, the government has tried hyperbole, disinformation and scaremongering – witness the infantile and dishonest “public information and education campaign” put together by advertising agency FCB New Zealand (to its everlasting shame) at a cost to the taxpayer of $4 million. The aim was to frighten New Zealanders into thinking our water infrastructure is in a parlous state and thus soften us up for the hijacking of council-owned assets and the removal of democratic accountability mechanisms.

In fact many, if not most, councils manage their water infrastructure efficiently and safely. In any case, the debate now is not so much about whether the management of water can be improved, which many critics of Three Waters accept. What’s contentious is the means by which the government proposes to do it.

As I said in a recent letter to the Times-Age, New Zealanders need to decide what type of government they want: one that serves all citizens equally, or one that recognises a minority racial group as having rights that trump those of the majority.

This doesn’t mean sweeping aside Maori rights. But it’s one thing to treat Maori fairly and respectfully, as is their due, and quite another to undermine the fundamental democratic principles from which all New Zealanders – Maori, Pakeha and everyone else – benefit.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that people of Maori descent enjoy the same rights as the rest of us. These include the right to stand for councils and to get elected, as many have done. That would provide the opportunity to be represented in the running of a legitimately constituted Three Waters governance structure. But the powerful iwi interests that influence the government (and in particular Labour’s Maori caucus, which is a power centre in its own right) want to bypass that process and enjoy a seat at the table as of right.

To put it another way, the Three Waters project, as it stands, involves replacing democracy with another form of government for which we don’t have a term.

2 thoughts on “Three Waters : an unnecessary programme that will degrade our democracy with a dubious (and unnamed) form of governance

  1. Three Waters may seem “an unnecessary battle” to some but the agenda has nothing to do with water quality or infrastructure financing needs and everything to do with Ardern’s race-based co-governance agenda. A coup against democracy is in train which aims to establish rule by iwi corporates and tribal leaders who will have a veto over every facet of the lives of the the remaining 85 percent of New Zealanders. That 85 percent are already dismissively referred to as “the other population” in the legislation to set up a race-based Maori Health Service. It should be clear to most people by now, no matter how hard the bought and paid for media try to spin it, that Ardern is an extremist who has no scruples about inflicting this appalling outcome on her country.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “A cult is a group or movement held together by a shared commitment to a charismatic leader or ideology. It has a belief system that has the answers to all of life’s questions and offers a special solution to be gained only by following the leader’s rules. It requires a high level of commitment from at least some of the members.

    1.Charismatic leader: The charismatic leader is the originator of the group. Charismatic leaders are great manipulators, they’re charming. They know how to read people. They come along and offer a message that is going to resonate with somebody. Once they get a few followers that’s all they need and then those people go out, recruit more and they build up an aura around the leader.”
    They start out being empathetic and then.
    “2. Transcendent belief system: Most religions and even political groups are going to have a transcendent belief system, meaning they’re stating how to get to some better place. But what’s different in cultic groups is they have their way to get you there. It’s what I call the recipe for change. In order to be part of the group, you have to go through a transformational process, which they dictate to you and you can’t be there otherwise. That’s the indoctrination program.”
    We go for co-governance.

    “3. Systems of control: They think they’re joining something that’s going to give them purpose and meaning. Slowly the heat gets turned up and you go through the rituals or the study sessions that get you more and more drawn in. As this process goes on, the person begins to adopt this new worldview that requires new behaviors and which most often requires cutting off from the past. There’s all kinds of control mechanisms, which are the rules and regulations.”
    You must accept that the TOW has principles. You must accept that maori life before 6 Feb 1840 was utopia. The tribes were not killing each other and they didn’t have slavery or cannabalism, they owned water, the oceans and the airwaves.
    We do not have a government, we have a cult controlling pretty much every facet of our lives, and it is only going to get worse as we continue to comply.
    We who are not maori are non-maori.


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