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Three Waters looks like the government’s suicide note

Graham Adams - The powerful Māori caucus has the Prime Minister firmly in its grip.
Graham Adams
Contributing Writer
May 2nd, 2022

OPINION: It has been widely noted that Jacinda Ardern didn’t appear at Friday’s media conference in Porirua to announce that the government would press on with its deeply unpopular Three Waters programme — albeit with a few minor adjustments.

The task of presenting the government’s response to a working group’s recommendations was left to Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Grant Robertson, wearing his hat as Minister for Infrastructure.

As Newstalk ZB’s political correspondent Aaron Dahmen reported: "Interesting to note that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is taking a week off after her Singapore / Japan trip but if she wanted to be here [at the Three Waters announcement], she would be."

Host Kerre Woodham responded with a derisive laugh: "Ah, she was never going to be there!"

But why would the Prime Minister have interrupted her holiday to attend? The scheme toforcibly transfer the water assets of the nation’s 67 councils to four vast regional entities — while giving 50 per cent governance over infrastructure, paid for by generations of ratepayers, to unelected iwi members — is so disliked it could well be her Waterloo.

And that is before the question of whether iwi will receive water royalties is answered definitively. So far, Mahuta has avoided responding when asked by journalists, which has made many suspicious that will indeed be the case.

Three Waters has become a lightning rod for growing dissatisfaction with the government’s relentless push for co-governance with Māori — in areas including education, health, science and research, local government and the conservation estate. The co-governance agenda is predicated on a radical interpretation of the Treaty as a 50:50 partnership between Māori and the Crown, which is hotly disputed and widely resented.

The dissatisfaction is compounded, of course, by the fact Ardern didn’t campaign on such law changes before 2020’s election.

Unfortunately for her, even if National’s Chris Luxon continues to make gaffes and fluff his answers in interviews, so long as he promises to abolish Three Waters in the run-up to next year’s election he will hold a trump card.

Ardern’s absence on Friday has also led to the inevitable criticism that she is a fair-weather Prime Minister, who only fronts the nation when she can shine — as was evident during the regular Covid briefings where she would typically leave bad news to be dispensed by another minister. However, she may well have considered reinforcing that view of herself to be a small price to pay. An opportunity to apply fresh lipstick to the pig of Three Waters — which is how Friday’s tweaks have been widely viewed — is a task she would have found easy to refuse.

Cosmetic changes to the Three Waters programme around public shareholding were announced but co-governance — which is the most contentious part of the reforms — has been retained. Iwi members will still have 50 per cent say on strategy for their regions and in appointing members of the new water management boards sitting beneath them in the complex bureaucratic structure.

In fact, the co-governance provisions seem to have been expanded. While the government rejected the working group’s suggestion of requiring council and mana whenua co-chairs on the regional groups, it will encourage the practice, along with consensus decision-making. As the NZ Herald reported, Mahuta acknowledged aspects of co-governance had actually been “strengthened”.

Most significantly, Ardern’s failure to front on Friday reinforced perceptions of who is really pulling the strings in her government. Mahuta’s unswerving promotion of Three Waters in the face of determined opposition continues to be a graphic reminder of the brute power of the Māori caucus and Ardern’s impotence as Prime Minister.

It’s pretty clear the woman hailed as “St Jacinda” by a columnist for the Financial Times in 2020 and “the world’s greatest leader” a year ago by Fortune magazine is now being led by the nose by her Minister for Local Government on an issue that has the potential to sink her government in 2023.

Ardern is hardly a conviction politician. She would have cut and run from Three Waters a long time ago if she could have — just as she ran from implementing a Capital Gains Tax in 2019. Extraordinarily, at that time she ruled out trying to introduce a CGT not only for the first term of her government but for as long as she led the Labour Party.

Yet the widespread hostility to Three Waters makes selling a capital gains tax look like a walk in the park.

Ardern said in March 2019 that “feedback suggests there is a lack of mandate amongst New Zealanders for such a tax”. But polling that month showed 44 per cent support for introducing a capital gains tax with 35 per cent opposed (16 per cent were neutral and 6 per cent unsure).

In contrast, a 1News Kantar Public Poll in late January this year showed only 26 per cent of voters supported the Three Waters reforms, with 40 per cent of voters opposed.

In March, it also became evident Ardern was backing away as fast as she could from her once-cherished hate-speech laws in the face of sustained opposition, proving yet again that she is a lady made for turning.

Mahuta — and her colleagues in the Maori caucus — clearly aren’t. They know the outright majority Ardern won in October 2020’s election has undoubtedly given them their very best chance to insert co-governance into policy and law.

They are going for broke and they have the numbers in the Labour caucus to keep Ardern exactly where they want her.

Last May on TVNZ’s Q&A panel, former MP Tau Henare summed up the position Ardern found herself in. Asked by host Jack Tame what he thought about Willie Jackson securing more than a billion dollars in the Budget for Māori initiatives, Henare replied:

At the end of the day, what this says is about [Māori] being around the table — in numbers — so that you can say to your mates: ‘Hey, take it or leave it. We can always leave.

It has been obvious that Ardern has been keeping her distance from Three Waters for some time now. She was happy to lead the push in its early stages, but after a disastrous $3.5 million cartoon ad campaign (featuring grumpy fish and slimy water coming out of taps), vocal opposition from most councils, and a $2.5 billion sweetener she offered last July being dismissed as a “bribe”, she has largely abandoned the field to Mahuta.

Ardern did present a video on Three Waters for the Labour Party’s virtual conference in November but it was a lacklustre performance focused on “the status quo is not an option”. She repeated the debunked claim that 34,000 New Zealanders get sick each year from poor-quality water and rehearsed once again her standard argument that has been summarised as: “Something must be done. Three Waters is something. Therefore we must do Three Waters.”

Last week, ferocious opposition from the public helped ensure the contentious Rotorua council representation bill was “paused” after the Attorney-General determined that the proposed law discriminated against non-Māori and thus breached the Bill of Rights Act. Opponents of race-based laws have been galvanised by the sudden backdown and are increasingly optimistic that the progress of Three Waters can be thwarted if enough people become aware of the stealthy co-governance agenda being forced on the nation without a mandate.

They may, however, be underestimating the determination of the Māori caucus to take advantage of a weak Prime Minister and push on through with their revolutionary programme.

Even if Labour loses next year’s election, Māori activists will count on political inertia leaving much of their law changes intact. Ardern’s tenure as Prime Minister will have served its purpose for the Māori caucus and their Cabinet allies — much as David Lange’s prime ministership did for the “Rogernomes” in his Cabinet who backed the policies pushed by Finance Minister Roger Douglas in the mid-80s.

Just as Lange’s oratory and advocacy on the nuclear ship issue provided cover and distraction for Douglas’s legislative blitzkrieg, so Ardern’s popularity and successful management of Covid have provided cover and distraction for Mahuta and Willie Jackson and their allies in Cabinet for rapidly advancing their separatist agenda.

Of course, if Mahuta cared more about her government’s prospects and about democracy itself, she would drop the provisions for co-governance which are causing so much grief and present the Three Waters legislation solely as an infrastructure funding bill.

That way the proposed centralisation of control over water infrastructure could be debated on its merits as a way of solving an expensive problem nearly everyone agrees needs a solution.

Some defenders of Three Waters argue that the regional representation groups made up of iwi and council representatives are so removed from the day-to-day control of the water assets that anyone asserting iwi will play a significant role as co-governors can only be intent on making mischief. But if that argument is correct, Mahuta should have no trouble at all in dropping iwi members from her proposed set-up.

The fact the minister shows no sign of bending on co-governance — no matter how intense and overwhelming the opposition — will only convince increasing numbers of voters that the whole point of Three Waters is to function as a Trojan horse to hand unelected iwi members control over billions of dollars’ worth of community assets.

Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore.