Turbulent Three Waters for Government

Disquiet and distrust on the Government’s revolutionary plans for the control, governance, ownership and delivery of Three Waters are showing no signs of calming.

An array of opposition with an assortment of serious concerns continues.

The matter could also become a lightning rod on Maori issues.

The process began badly with the puerile and exaggerated campaign designed to soften up the public. Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has also consistently come across as obdurate and dour.

Her "apologies" on Sunday about the initial PR campaign and about not understanding the public’s knowledge about the issue were limited and unconvincing.

Large and small councils cite asset grabs, unfairness, lack of accountability to users, complex governance structures, glaring mistakes in calculations and being misled when told joining the planned four water entities was discretionary.

Many council concerns are legitimate, even allowing for self-interest as they lose their core water, wastewater and stormwater functions.

What is — or at least should be — in agreement is the need for change. Local councils have, by and large, let their citizens down. They have underspent on these vital roles.

The Government seems determined to bulldoze on, pausing only for a "reform working group" to try to resolve impasses over some of the most unpopular aspects. While the group tried to come up with ways of giving councils more say, the proposed "shareholding" remains phoney. Other recommendations add further to the complexity of the structures.

This looks like a government attempt to create a safety valve and give the appearance of some flexibility. But tinkering does not address the underlying issues. It has failed.

This year’s local government elections will be flush with candidates flooding the Government on Three Waters. This will, in part, focus on Labour’s Maori apparent co-governance agenda and the vexed question of water ownership and possible water royalties.

The entities coincide with tribal boundaries, and mana whenua representatives will make up 50% of those nominating the entity boards.

While there is no suggestion of Maori "ownership" of the water infrastructure, there are fears in some quarters about the water itself.

Labour, the liberal elites, the Wellington beltway, and the dominant public discourse might insist that all this is right and fair. But is the depth and breadth of feelings in "heartland" New Zealand understood?

Many New Zealanders, who may recognise past injustices and support Maori renaissance, resent that even raising questions results in "racist" dismissal.

This is fertile ground for National — even as it cautiously walks a tightrope in public pronouncements — and especially for Act. Leader David Seymour is much more direct on what he says Te Tiriti o Waitangi should mean in 2022.

As well, this is an obvious lever for Winston Peters and New Zealand First. Last week he said: "Like so many other elitist proposals demands have been made in the name of ordinary Maori while the benefits will go straight to a small Maori elite making these demands."

It feels to many that co-governance and alleged "favoured status" to mana whenua is both going too far and doing so without public debate or consent.

Three Waters is also one of the grab-bag of issues being seized on by another group, the disaffected found at the frightening and inchoate protest encampment at Parliament last month.

Because Labour has invested much in its Three Waters plan, "off-ramps" are hard to discover.

Yet, the key to improving Three Waters performance is now in place through the water regulator Taumata Arowai.

Whatever happens, a lot more money will have to be spent on infrastructure. Should Three Waters remain under council purview, homeowners can still expect to pay much more.

Those areas where maintenance and renewal have been neglected the most would, as is just, face the largest bills.

Many options other than the flawed Government plan have been suggested. These need to be explored.