Three Waters: So much for local democracy

Local Government Minister Nania Mahuta. Photo: RNZ
Local Government Minister Nania Mahuta. Photo: RNZ
There are major problems with “Three Waters” in New Zealand. No doubt about it.

Water supplies can be unsafe (Havelock North tragedy), sewage can erupt in streets (Wellington’s lack of investment) and stormwater inundates and contaminates.

The Government says it has the answer. Take all these responsibilities from failing councils and create four large water entities.

They can raise the billions needed to upgrade services. They can be far more efficient and effective. Voila. The problems will be solved.

At the same time, proceed with shonky and exaggerated figures, promote the plan through puerile advertisements and tell councils they have choices on whether they are part of the plan.

Surprise, surprise. Councils revolted, even the biggest in Auckland and Christchurch headed by former senior Labour politicians.

Next, proclaim the changes “may not be popular but they are necessary”, as Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta did on Wednesday. Councils cannot opt out.

The Government has proceeded rapidly and confirmed the proposals this week before councils had a chance to consult residents and at a time when Covid dominates.

So much for community empowerment. So much for local democracy.

Accuse councils, too, of “misinformation” when they complain about their assets being stripped. Technically, councils have a form of convoluted and distance “ownership”, a Clayton’s ownership. It is through layers of governance and without control.

Ms Mahuta is the one spreading misinformation.

The sop in Wednesday’s announcement — while proceeding at pace notwithstanding the opposition — is to set up a working group to reconsider governance and accountability. It is hard to see significant change occurring.

At present, if businesses or consumers have issues, large or small, they can always hassle their locally accountable mayors and councillors.

But the four entities — one covering almost all the South Island, matching Ngai Tahu territory — will be big monopolies. There is little to stop them from overcharging or overborrowing, underinnovating or underresponding.

A further regulator/watchdog will have to be set up to protect the public’s interests, as the Government is recognising.

The vested interests of mayors and councils are part of the picture. The removal of Three Waters on top of the Resource Management Act changes leaves many councils with not that much left. This is a revolution in New Zealand governance and democracy. No wonder some are close to hysterical in their reactions.

The decision that the governance boards will be 50/50 iwi and non-iwi is also considered by many to be revolutionary.

However, the central Government knows it knows best. Centralisation is the answer. Other options are shut out.

A regulator to make sure basic standards for Three Waters are met is well on the way to being in place. Even National agrees that is a good idea.

Two fundamental issues in the current failures are the inability of some councils to raise the money to do what is necessary and the lack of will for many councils to spend the billions required.

The regulator will put the pressure on for the second matter — one where improvements are already taking place, albeit too slowly.

Surely, there are other funding models than setting up four new bureaucracies distanced from councils for debt-raising purposes.

Whatever. The Government has decided that instead of working with councils it will wave its wand consolidating Three Waters and fundamentally excluding local government from the arrangements.

What’s next, councils must be thinking. After all, the Government has already combined polytechnics and is doing the same with district health boards.

Little now stands in the way of these huge changes. National has said it would overturn them. But its weakness and the popularity of Jacinda Ardern — even if that is slipping — make the prospect of National winning in 2023 unlikely, even this far out.

Although Labour is burning political capital on this matter, other even bigger issues such as Covid are likely to take precedence two years from now.


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Sadly the public know little about Three Waters. We just turn on a tap, flush a loo and splash in the puddles. No cares. Govts for years have known the problem but too scared to tackle it - and not one editor has the answer.
I would have thought councils would be pleased to wash their hands of this mess, like they have just done with rural fire. Councils' responsibilities today are too huge and why councillors don't last long and why good citizens won't put their hands up.
But the funny thing is that underneath, despite the protests to impress the farmers, the Nats actually support Three Waters. Why? It will be another govt asset they will flog off like they usually do.

What's going on in New Zealand at present is nothing short of disgusting.
This Labour government, can no longer hide behind Covid-19.
Thankfully, the people of NZ are waking up, and standing up to this socialism, near-communist proposal.

No they're not. Most people want clean drinking water, acceptable amounts of it, want it flushed away after use etc. Been too much hui & no dui in past govts.

So taking it off rate payers will sort, yeh nice one!!

I worked for a government agency that was planning to introduce significant changes to a region. At the meetings around this we were instructed by the CEO of the agency that nothing was to be reported to the public until the changes were at a stage where they could not be stopped or altered. When they were finally made public it was put in a form that submissions etc, could be lodged for discussion and modification of the plan. This was totally false, there was no way any submissions etc, would change a single thing. It was all an illusion of democratic process ....and....this was all when Labour was in Government!

Agree with you, Centaur. We now have a mere illusion of democracy, especially with respect to local 'government' which has become no more than local administration.The recent use of the word 'mandate' to describe the Government decision to move the control of local water resources away from the local communities who own them is a good example of the virtually 'newspeak' measures used to pull the wool over citizens' eyes. The word 'mandate' has two different and almost opposite meanings. In a democracy, any Government rules only with a mandate from the people. I don't believe there is any such mandate for this Government to move local water resources out of local control. Or city planning. The other kind of 'mandate' is just a decree, such as tyrants make. There is every sign that the present Government intended such compulsion all along. Big Sister knows what is good for you better than you do, an iron fist in a velvet glove.

If in fact you had worked for a govt AGENCY then you would know that is what has happened for years - even under your Nat govt. Research a bit more on the Chch EQs and the sole use of Fletchers & CERA etc etc

Maybe contemporary society has become so complicated and high tech that 'the iron law of oligarchy' is inevitable.
What really annoys me is that the present ruling oligarchy equates its values with morality and seems to try to shame citizens into agreement, compliance or, at least, silence. The present Government's propaganda campaign on why all right thinking people must agree with its water 'reforms' is an example. The Advertising Standards Authority showed its Kafkaesque character once again by being incapable of distinguishing propaganda from advocacy. I can't see this contempt for ordinary NZ citizens going away, only getting worse. All this when the technology exists to have referendums.

So our water/sewage assets that we paid for via our rates are now going to be seized by the central government without a negotiated recompense? In my book that is called theft, plain and simple. If I did that, I would go to jail, even if I "promised" to make it better for you in the future. Sure......

Agree with GM, the consolidation of these assets under 50% Iwi (likely corporaate Iwi) and 50% government will be sold off in a jiffy. Also likely the policy is not a NZ one, like the current focus of this government it is very likely driven from outside the country.

Also agree with Elco1 that this government is very much on the nose. But communist? Not when you're doing the bidding of Corporates it's not.

Labour won't survive what this Government is up to.

Nanaia gives the appearance of leading a Government within a Government and doesn't seem to be accountable to the PM.

If she had any integrity, following this debacle she would resign. If Ardern had any leadership skills and concern for the country, she would sack her.

I just hope that when the protests and petitions against this reform and other ones this regime are putting through by stealth or mandate, New Zealanders will stand up as one and say NO. It's happened before - think SA rugby tour, nuclear free Pacific...hopefully it'll happen again.

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