Dr Bryce Edwards’ NZ Politics Daily Political Roundup: Can Three Waters be salvaged, or will Nanaia Mahuta have to go?

Could this Cartoon be any more Wellington focus grouped?
The Government’s Three Waters reform programme is still in crisis, despite the supposed fix coming in yesterday with the release of yet another report with recommendations for improvements.

The Government seems determined to push through a deeply unpopular set of reforms for drinking, waste, and storm water, taking assets and responsibilities off local government and handing over control to four big entities that will operate under a Treaty-based co-governance model.

None of the report’s 47 recommendations are very significant. This is unsurprising as the working group was stacked, and given very tight terms of reference, meaning it was always more an exercise in public manipulation than good public policymaking.

In particular, the working group were not allowed to examine the core of Nanaia Mahuta’s Three Waters model – setting up the new entities under a co-governance model in which significant power is shifted to iwi, who would have half the control over the four new entities. That remains the elephant in the room, which Mahuta and her Government are extremely reluctant to discuss. The suspicion is that by avoiding talking about the shift to co-governance, the Government is hoping major constitutional change can simply be achieved without public debate.

Of course, there could be very good reasons for introducing a co-governance model. The problem is the Government has yet to make the case. Accordingly, surveys continue to show the public is deeply unconvinced by the concept. And it probably doesn’t help that whenever questions are raised about it, they are met with allegations of “racism” or “scaremongering”.

The other line often used by the Government is that anyone opposed to the Three Waters model is “opposed to change”. This is unfair as all critics have argued that significant change to water management is required. Opponents have actually put forward alternative models, which the Government has so far refused to consider or debate.

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The latest working group’s recommendations, range from ideas that will make no real difference, to some that will make the reforms even worse. The highest profile recommendation of giving Claytons “shares” to local government, gives the appearance of ownership but means absolutely nothing in practice.

Other issues that remain unaddressed are water charges, water metres, and royalty payments. Although it’s been clarified that the local government owners of the water assets will be unable to extract any royalties, critics have pointed out that mana whenua groups will be allowed to do exactly that. Such claims will continue to have salience until Mahuta and the Prime Minister resolutely rule this out. And the possibility that big increases in water charges will be levelled on the public, or even privatisation of the assets, have not been refuted.

Dissent on Three Waters is now building rather than dissipating. The latest report appears to have embedded opposition rather than eroding it. Local authorities are quickly joining the opposition umbrella group, Communities for Local Democracy. This now has the affiliation of 30 of New Zealand’s 67 councils.

The worry for the Government is that such widespread and grass roots opposition will have a major impact on the upcoming local government elections. Candidates opposed to the Three Waters model and the way that Mahuta has dealt with local government may attract support for their stance.

At the national level, it might also give a platform for political forces that can foster anger at the way the reforms have been imposed, and the general iwi co-governance model, which some will argue is merely the start of a new constitutional pattern of politics in which democracy is eroded.

For example, yesterday Winston Peters’ New Zealand First party put out a press release stridently opposing the reforms, positioning the party on the side of working class Māori and against tribal elites who are set to benefit from co-governance: “Like so many other elitist proposals demands have been made in the name of ordinary Maori whilst the benefits will go straight to a small Māori elite making these demands.”

There is still a chance that the Government will back down on Three Waters. If opinion polls continue to narrow between the left and right blocs, then Jacinda Ardern will start to look at what areas of the Government reform programme are eroding public confidence. Three Waters, or at least the co-governance model, is likely to be identified as a roadblock to re-election in 2023.

The alternative is that the Government gets out and actually sells the reforms to the public. This is what has been sorely lacking (beyond the infamous propaganda ad campaign). But that will require more than disparaging co-governance critics whose arguments are resonating widely with the public.

Any U-turn on Three Waters might actually see Mahuta lose the Local Government portfolio. It’s long been rumoured that inside the Beehive there has been dissatisfaction with the Minister’s stewardship of water reform.

Early in the year, Stuff journalists predicted Mahuta will be sacked from the portfolio in an upcoming Cabinet reshuffle. Here’s what they forecast: “Moving Mahuta away will help to dampen the vitriol from those riled by the prospect of Māori involvement in governance of water entities, and allow her to travel more as foreign minister.”

Mahuta would keep her Foreign Affairs portfolio – which is of increasing importance. But it’s becoming clearer that she doesn’t have the capacity for more than one major portfolio, and she has the wrong temperament for the local government one, given her inability to consult with the sector, and her dogmatic approach to reform.

Such a move would be very embarrassing for Ardern and the Government, and an explicit acknowledgement that they have bungled Three Waters, but it may be necessary.

Certainly, the Government may wish to have her out of the portfolio before the local government candidates begin their campaigns, which will surely utilise opposition to Mahuta and Three Waters, setting up an early warning of what Labour might be facing in 2023.

Further reading on Three Waters

Te Aniwa Hurihanganui (1News): Claims Māori will own NZ’s water infrastructure dismissed
David Farrar: Terrible recommendations on Three Waters
Russell Palmer (RNZ): Three waters reforms: Working group urges government financial backing
Tina Law (Stuff): Three waters group criticised for only ‘tinkering at the edges’ rather than proposing real change
Susan Botting (Local Democracy Reporting): Three Waters: Wrong answer to right question – Kaipara Mayor in wake of working group participation
Barrie Saunders: Three Waters – a totally unnecessary battle
Jordan Williams (Taxpayers Union): New Three Waters recommendations are an unholy mess
Bernard Hickey: Kainga Ora’s ‘little maelstrom’ is not passing quickly (paywalled)
Nikki Mandow (Newsroom): Report puts Three Waters ownership back in community hands
Richard Harman: Goff rejects Maori co-governance of Three Waters (paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury: The 2 real question 3 Waters must answer

Background on Three Waters:
Political Roundup: Government failure on water reform
Political Roundup: The Democratic and equity deficits in the Three Waters reforms

Other items of interest and importance today

Geoffrey Miller (Democracy Project): How significant is New Zealand’s new Russia sanctions law?
Geoffrey Miller argues that the new sanctions law probably marks the beginning of a shift away from an independent foreign policy.

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Russia, Ukraine war’s impact on New Zealand: petrol, energy, subsidies, politics (paywalled)
Looking at New Zealand’s decision on sanctions and orientation to what is happening in Ukraine and Russia, Thomas Coughlan concludes “New Zealand faces a disturbing future of expensive and uncertain energy supply, and a lonely and uncertain geopolitics.”

Richard Harman: Sanctions – at last (paywalled)
The passage of the sanctions bill last night means that the focus is now on wealthy Russians in New Zealand, with Richard Harman reporting: “At least one billionaire Aleksander Abramov, the owner of the $50 million Helena Bay Lodge, has already retained a law firm to represent him.”

Kate MacNamara (Herald): Did special briefings for ‘commentators’ help shape a favourable government narrative on vaccines? (paywalled)
This is part three of an important series on the use of communications spin-doctoring by government. This instalment looks at how the Government selected 21 “Covid commentators” for special briefings earlier in the pandemic so that they could help get the right messaging out.

Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): Reports Of Labour’s Death …
Why does the Labour Government keep commissioning experts to advise them on transformational reform, and then ignore them? “The answer, as always, is: Rogernomics.”

Jon Duffy (Stuff): Business as usual for supermarkets, while shoppers are still being ‘shafted’
The chief executive of Consumer NZ bemoans that the Commerce Commission report was a missed opportunity, for which the public and food producers will suffer.

ODT: Editorial – Supermarket review disappoints
The Commerce Commission report is “more doorstopper than showstopper”, and shoppers will take some convincing that Labour are going to fulfill their promises on supermarket reform.

Herald: Editorial: Commerce Commission supermarket study fails to supply fast-moving goods (paywalled)
Don’t expect any major change to supermarket prices soon, but some of the reforms recommended by the Commerce Commission make sense.

Stuff: Editorial – Shoppers need more than ComCom’s tepid reform proposals
This editorial argues that the Government still needs to act on supermarket reform, but should look beyond the “muted” Commerce Commission report for its ideas.

Arthur Grimes (Stuff): Loss of whenua continues to have effects on health and wellbeing for many Māori
Economist and Professor of Wellbeing at Victoria University of Wellington, Arthur Grimes, argues that if you want to understand contemporary inequities for Māori you need to look back at the immense land loss that occurred after 1840.

Jean Balchin (ODT): Media literacy should be curriculum subject
In dealing with the “disinformation crisis” this argues that attempts to ban bad information or shield the public are the wrong way forward. Instead, we need better education on how to navigate the media.

Justin Giovannetti (Spinoff): An interview with Christopher Luxon
After 100 days on the job, National’s leader sat down to answer questions from the Spinoff’s political editor.

Mike Hosking (Herald): Chris Luxon has made Jacinda Ardern look out of touch(paywalled)
Hosking argues that Jacinda Ardern’s claims there is no “cost of living crisis” is absurd, and that Christopher Luxon is winning this debate.

Lane Nichols (Herald): Covid 19, ‘no evictions’ policy blamed for Kāinga Ora unpaid rent rise
Since Labour came to power in 2017, unpaid rent on state houses has ballooned from $750,000 to $9 million. Kāinga Ora explains that this is due to Covid and its “no evictions” policy for misbehaving tenants.

Paula Penfold and Louisa Cleave (Stuff): Government plan to tackle Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder ‘has failed’
Experts in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder lament that the Government’s major initiative on this has failed to deliver “any meaningful difference”.

John Weekes (Herald): Closing time announced for almost all MIQ hotels
The MIQ hotel system is about to be mostly dismantled, and so of the 32 current facilities, 28 will return to being hotels by the end of June.


  1. Mahuta would keep her Foreign Affairs portfolio – which is of increasing importance.

    Nanaia Mahuta is the best possible international ambassador that we could have at this time, Imo. She excels at this, and I feel proud when I see her representing us. As well, the Foreign Affairs role is worthy of 100% of her time and attention.

    I hope that the described change does happen, – that Nanaia is released/ set free from having to try and sort out other people’s tangled mess that “Three Waters” has become, and that she can focus more fully on international affairs and the world “out there”.

  2. Yes the co governance isn’t a small side issue it’s one of the main issues.
    Treaty of Waitangi guarantees equal rights for citizens not extra rights.

    Iwi are corporates, in Ngai Tahus case they are a massive corporate dairy farmer asking for 50% control and veto rights on water.
    The same iwi had some of it’s dairy conversion consents knocked back by ecan.
    What could possibly go wrong giving unelected tribal elites power over water?

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