by Karl du Fresne
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.