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3 reasons there must be a truly independent review into Three Waters

A former deputy PM & 2 former senior ministers, all from different parties, are calling for answers from Mahuta & Labour regarding conflicts of interest & lack of transparency around 3 Waters.
The Platform
Exclusive Platform Content
May 30th, 2022

OPINION: A former deputy prime minister and two former senior ministers, all from different parties, are calling for answers from Minister Nanaia Mahuta and the Labour Government in regards to perceived conflicts of interest and lack of transparency around Three Waters.

In a Facebook post, Jacinda Ardern’s former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said:

The fact is it looks like a ‘wink wink, nudge nudge’ approach to the process of these appointments and cannot go unchallenged. It just adds yet another level of the ‘mud-like clarity’ that surrounds the commissioning and content of the He Puapua report.

Former Labour Minister of Local Government and Minister of Health Dr Michael Bassett is more direct and scathing of Minister Mahuta:

As can be seen from the way Nanaia has been engineering her family into lucrative positions of influence, her vision of co-governance will involve corruption on one side and democracy on the other.

Meanwhile, former National cabinet minister and 30 year MP for Pakuranga Maurice Williamson appeared on The Platform this morning to speak with Sean Plunket. He called for Peter Hughes, the Public Service Commissioner and Head of Service, to take a look into the appointments of Minister Mahuta’s family members.

The growing chorus of calls for transparency from the Government follow The Platform’s reporting last week of the many influential and lucrative roles Nanaia Mahuta’s family members have been appointed to.

With the example of the investigation of Judith Collins’ alleged (and since disproven) undermining of the then head of the Serious Fraud Office, Adam Feeley, by an independent high court judge as a precedent, there are three key reasons there should be a properly independent review into Three Waters.

There is more to Doug Martin’s involvement

First, is the already reported issue of Doug Martin’s role as chairman of the Government's working group to review Three Waters. Late last year the Opposition raised concerns about Doug Martin’s independence given he is the founder and former director of Martin Jenkins a consultancy firm which has had extensive involvement with the Three Waters reform.

Quoting a DIA spokesperson The New Zealand Herald reported at the time:

He said that while Martin was a founding partner of Martin Jenkins, he "exited his ownership interest some years ago" and only occasionally undertakes "assignments for clients when asked through a contract relationship".

A spokesperson for Minister Nanaia Mahuta also told the New Zealand Herald:

 ...there is clearly no conflict of interest here. Doug Martin has neither had an ownership interest in, nor been director of Martin Jenkins for some years.

Under its terms of reference, the Three Waters working group was tasked with reviewing and analysing the work already carried out. This was to include a Martin Jenkins report dated 6 December 2017 and what does not appear to have been reported is that the report lists Doug Martin himself as an author alongside his colleagues Paul Clarke, Phillippa Bowron and Morgan Hanks.

He would therefore be reviewing a report he wrote.

Doug Martin was appointed chairperson by Minister of Local Government Nanaia Mahuta in consultation with the President of the Local Government New Zealand.

Additionally, one of Martin Jenkins' current directors, Nick Davis was contracted by the Department of Internal Affairs to be “chief strategic director” for the Three Water reforms and to lead the secretariat for the reform programme's steering committee. Another director and shareholder of Martin Jenkins, Michael Mills, has also been contracted by the department.

To date more than $2.5 million dollars have been paid by the Government to Martin Jenkins for work on the Three Waters reforms.

Doug Martin, through Martin Jenkins Consultancy, is now leading an independent inquiry into fluoride mismanagement by Wellington Water in regards to which conflict of interest concerns were also raised.

Kahui Legal 

Second, is concern around the common legal provider used for the He Puapua report and the Three Waters working group - a firm called Kahui Legal. Although the firm is undoubtedly highly qualified and was clear of legal conflicts to undertake all of their work, there are questions to be answered as to whether all potential commercial conflicts have been managed to mitigate public perceptions of problematic conflicts of interest.

Those commercial conflicts could include interests of large Kahui Legal clients such as iwi Waikato-Tainui and the Maniapoto Maori Trust Board. Although different Kahui Legal partners advised each working group, it is evident that similar co-governance advice was set out in the He Puapua report and the co-governance presentation given by Kahui Legal partner, Jamie Ferguson, to the Three Waters working group on 17 December 2021.

It is worth noting that the Kahui Legal partner who advised the He Puapua working group is the then wife of Minister Kiri Allan, Natalie Coates.

The significance of Kahui Legal’s other clients is bolstered by the fact that Minister Nanaia Mahuta is a iwi member of Waikato-Tainui and Maniapoto. The Mahuta whanau are powerful and influential within these iwi. For example, Tipa Mahuta, the minister’s sister, was appointed as iwi co-chair to the Waikato River Authority by Waikato-Tainui.

According to former New Zealand First MP and new chairperson of Te Aratarua (the executive arm of Waikato-Tainui’s parliament) Tukoroirangi Morgan, Waikato-Tainui is also already focusing on how they can maximise opportunity regarding Three Waters.

He goes on to say:

history tells us that...western democracy really amounts to the tyranny of the majority. So how then are we supposed to participate in a real, meaningful and significant way?

The influence of Tipa Mahuta

And the third key reason for a truly independent review into Three Waters is something we have already discussed - the appointment of Tipa Mahuta as Chair of the Maori Advisory Group of Taumata Arowai, the new water regulator, which will directly regulate the four water service entities following the reforms.

The Platform has already raised the issue of Minister Mahuta’s family members being appointed to key roles, but this role required a statutory appointment, such was its significance. There needs to be transparency around how Minister Mahuta was able to remove herself from the process of appointing her sister to the role given that she had to be involved as both Minister of Local Government and Minister for Maori Development. In order to address the very obvious conflict of interest, there was a temporary transfer of the appointment power to Minister of Maori Crown Relations Kelvin Davis, but this begs the question as to who was involved in the initial selection of Tipa Mahuta for the role before the transfer of powers occurred, and how the ongoing conflict of interest is being managed now.

Tipa Mahuta is also the co-chair of the new Maori Health Authority.

There is no suggestion that any of the key reasons outlined involve criminal activity. This is about whether management of obvious, and in some cases admitted, conflicts of interest is satisfactory and present no undue impact on the highly contentious Three Waters reforms. 

These reforms are contentious and despite the Government’s refusal to facilitate any kind of public conversation, the topic is being discussed up and down the country. New Zealanders are concerned about co-governance, three waters, and what is seen by some as an attack on our democracy.

There must be an investigation. At the very least it has caused a public perception of multiple conflicts of interest and the cabinet manual makes it clear that perception is very important.