This article was originally published on Karl du Fresne's blog on 10 March 2022. It is re-published here with permission.
OPINION: 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 Māori 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 Māori rights. But it’s one thing to treat Māori fairly and respectfully, as is their due, and quite another to undermine the fundamental democratic principles from which all New Zealanders – Māori, Pakeha and everyone else – benefit.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that people of Māori 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 Māori 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.