Govt gives each council another $350,000 (of our money) to get Three Waters flowing – and win their support for its coup

Buzz from the Beehive

Three Waters reforms – the subject of widespread disquiet around the country – was among the issues tackled by Ministers with new initiatives over the past 24 hours.

So too was the vexed issue of housing.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being pumped into both problems. Or should that be “challenges”?

Housing Minister Megan Woods announced that not-for-profit groups looking to develop new rental homes for households on lower incomes that stay affordable over the long-term can apply for the first tranche of funding available from the $350 million Affordable Housing Fund announced in Budget 2022.

The first $50 million of this fund is devoted to rental developments for lower-income people who cannot afford a market rent but can’t access public housing, she explained.

“This will make projects to develop and sustain new affordable rental housing financially viable.”

As easy as that, eh?

The Minister then mentioned another fund.  She said the Progressive Home Ownership Fund is giving people who would not otherwise be able to own their own homes the chance to do so with support such as budgeting training and getting a deposit together.

“We have approved more contracts with not-for-profit providers to develop another 183 new affordable homes across the country…”

When the houses have been built under the government’s various programmes (don’t forget Kiwibuild), they will need reliable water services.

This brings into the reckoning the Three Waters reforms which the Government is hellbent on implementing, regardless of the widespread public and council distaste for them.

Many aspects of the intended restructuring cry out for elaboration, elucidation and/or explanation.

For starters, there are questions around the role being played by Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s sister, Tipa, as chair of Te Puna – the Māori Advisory Group to Taumata Arowai.

Among the important questions is the matter of the intended relationships between Nanaia and  Tipa, should Three Waters be implemented as we are led to believe it will be.

As Graham Adams reported on Point of Order yesterday, a Letter of Expectation sent by Nanaia Mahuta in November last year makes clear that Taumata Arowai is obliged to “implement” what the Māori Advisory Group instructs it to do.

He observed:

Tipa Mahuta is clearly the linchpin in the Three Waters set-up — with her sister, the minister, to one side of her, and Taumata Arowai on the other. 

In that sense, it would appear Nanaia Mahuta’s claim that her sister “advises the board of Taumata Arowai rather than the minister” is, at the very best, a partial truth. It certainly doesn’t accurately reflect Tipa Mahuta’s crucial two-way role.

Then there are questions about costs and who will be paying how much.

National this week was claiming a new project merging local councils’ water service IT systems as part of the three waters reforms could blow out beyond the $500 million upper limit officials have quoted.

 National’s Simon Watts was quoted as saying:

“There is significant downside risk in regard to these IT costs blowing out further – if the range is what it is at the moment … it’s not inconceivable to think that 12 months down the track that those numbers could be larger and that again is a significant concern.”

And:

“After four years of planning and preparation, the fact that they don’t know what this key element will cost raises the fact that they aren’t over the detail, they haven’t done the planning and preparation.”

Watts noted that this would only be adding to the government’s previous spending on the Three Waters reform, including $26m on consultants, at least $3.5m on an advertising campaign that was heavily criticised, and $2.5 billion on the government’s “no worse off” and “better off” funding for councils.

Next day, even more costs came into the reckoning.  Reporting these, the New Zealand Herald said:

As the Government continues to face heat over its controversial Three Water reforms, it has announced it will give at least $350,000 to each of the 67 councils in the country, saying it was to help councils bed in the reforms.

The $44 million package is on top of an earlier $2.5 billion funding package intended to compensate councils for the reforms, of which $500 million was to ensure they were no worse off through the transition period. The remainder was to allow them to pay for other infrastructure and “wellbeing investments” – but has been criticised as a “bribe” by those opposed to it.

The announcement comes on the eve of the Local Government NZ conference in Palmerston North, where a raft of ministers is set to speak, and Three Waters is on the agenda. The $2.5 billion package was announced by the Prime Minister at last year’s conference.

But let’s give the floor to Kieran McAnulty, the Associate Minister of Local Government.

It was his proud duty to announce the handouts reported by the Herald and other media.

Yes, every Council in New Zealand will receive at least $350,000 of additional funding to ensure they have the resourcing necessary to implement the Three Waters reforms

The Government has set aside a $44 million fund to assist Councils with the costs and resourcing necessary to set up the new Three Waters system, he said.

McAnulty trundled out the persistently regurgitated claim that:

“These reforms are about delivering clean and safe drinking water at an affordable price for New Zealanders. They will deliver significant cost savings to Councils and ratepayers over time…”

Then he said additional resources are needed in the short term to set up the new system.

“Since becoming Associate Minister of Local Government I’ve been meeting rural and provincial councils and one thing I’ve heard consistently is that Councils are facing significant demand on their staff time and resources and this fund is being established to assist with that.”

The Three Waters reforms – the largest change local government has faced in a long time – is creating additional work for councils, which already are under strain from staff shortages, winter illness, and COVID, McAnulty acknowledged.

“This funding will allow local authorities to draw in expertise to support Councils through the Three Waters transition period and continue business as usual.

“Each council, regardless of their size, will receive $350,000 over 12 months with top-ups allocated based on the ‘Better Off’ funding method.”

This seems calculated to win favour in smaller rural communities, where much of the opposition to Three Waters has been fermenting.

McAnulty should have a good measure of their sentiment because – as he says – over the past two weeks he has met with 21 rural and provincial councils

“… and the concern of resourcing has come through consistently, so I’m glad to support councils with funding certainty.”

He still has 34 councils to meet with and says he will be looking for their insight as to the best way the government can support councils.

But he doesn’t have to talk to those councils to find the  most egregious shortcomings in the reforms being driven by the PM, her Local Government Minister and the Maori caucus.

He need only read the article by former Labour cabinet minister Richard Prebble in the New Zealand Herald today.

Under the heading Richard Prebble: Three Waters is an attack on democracy, Prebble looks at the profound constitutional implications of what is being thrust upon us and explains:

Fundamental to a liberal democracy is government being accountable to the people by a system of one person, one vote.

Liberal democracy is incompatible with co-government by tribes. New Zealand has never been co-governed by iwi.

What is called co-governance of assets is actually de facto co-ownership. Co-ownership is a pragmatic solution to Treaty claims to assets such as national parks.

But taking the concept of co-governance and applying it to assets which iwi have no claim to is the confiscation of property. It is ratepayers – Māori and non-Māori – who paid for the pipes, dams, stormwater drains and sewage plants.

The Government’s Three Waters legislation is a coup. It is replacing liberal democracy with co-government with iwi.

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