Local Government Magazine
Guest editorial

Three waters reform is far from inevitable

By Louis Houlbrooke, Campaigns manager, New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union.
This summer [2021-2022], holidaying politicians, public servants, and local councillors were faced with the stark depth and breadth of public opposition to the Government’s water reforms

As they drove highways from Southland to Kaitaia, they were confronted with hundreds of massive roadside banners bearing the message “Stop 3 Waters”. 

These signs were commissioned and delivered by the Taxpayers’ Union but were paid for by the thousands of New Zealanders who have chipped in $25 or $100 to fight the reforms, erected by property owners willing and eager to be seen opposing what is widely seen as an asset grab. 

The Taxpayers’ Union’s petition to stop Three Waters has received 87,000 signatures, and polls from Curia, Kantar, and Reid-Research consistently show public opposition to the scheme far outweighs support. 

Meanwhile, the Government’s own $3.5 million ad campaign to support the reforms has been an unmitigated disaster, with BusinessDesk reporting on a Government survey that found the longer the ads ran, the more New Zealanders opposed the scheme. The ad campaign was ultimately suspended after the Public Service Commission raised concerns that the Government was ignoring advertising guidelines requiring taxpayer-funded ads to be accurate, factual, and unbiased. 

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has attempted to write off opposition to her scheme as the result of ‘misinformation’ and fear. Perhaps this would be credible if her only opponents were grey-haired right-wing protestors – but the ranks of anti-Three Waters campaigners now include a large swathe of the country’s local councils. At last count, 27 have joined the anti-Three Waters “Communities 4 Local Democracy” alliance. Only seven mayors have opted to endorse the reforms.

 How did Nanaia Mahuta get this so wrong? 

Her initial attempt to win councils over by contracting Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) to run consultation on the false promise of an “opt-in” reform model only served to sow deep distrust when it became clear the Government had already settled on an all-in, compulsory regime. 

The blowback for LGNZ has been immense, with Timaru District Council seceding from the advocacy group entirely and other councils considering the same move. 

Then there are Mahuta’s dismissive comments on the motives of local council opposition. She has told media, “There’s a resistance within parts of the local government community who do not want change and I don’t accept that.” 

This is simply wrong. No council opposes change. In fact, the anti-Three Waters council grouping is clear that their mission is to work with the Government to deliver a credible model. What they reject is the false premise: “we must do something, and this is something, therefore we must do this”. 

One need only look to the Hawkes Bay to see there are alternatives to Mahuta’s Three Waters model. A proposal for micro-amalgamation of water services in the region has been in the works since 2016, which would achieve economies of scale without undue centralisation and the concurrent loss of accountability. 

And what to make of the immense grassroots reaction to the Government’s proposed model? It is telling that opposition has been most visible in rural communities, with Taxpayers’ Union signage – including at groundswell protests. 

These communities, in theory, stand to benefit from cross-subsidisation of infrastructure. But frustrations around the bureaucratic impositions of water services reforms – despite that being a separate piece of legislation – have only intensified the suspicion with which New Zealanders view the Government’s approach to water. 

Meanwhile, there are very real, and valid concerns with the substance of the Three Waters plan. Four layers of bureaucracy would separate ratepayers from the management of the new mega-entities. 

If, under this model, your water services are mismanaged, how do you hold the entity to account? You could threaten to vote out your local councillor – but they only have a fraction of a voice on a regional representative group, which itself is split 50-50 with iwi, which appoints a selection panel, which in turn appoints board members for the entities. This Kafkaesque model will not improve accountability. 

And then there is the question of costs. Two simple questions undermine the Government’s claim that reform will save ratepayers money. 

Firstly: if amalgamation is meant to create efficiencies, why is Nanaia Mahuta also saying her reforms will create new jobs? 

Secondly: once water liabilities are transferred to the new entities (which will send you water bills), do you really trust your local council to cut your rates at a level commensurate to their savings? Will your council seriously sack every manager who had a hand in water services prior to amalgamation? 

The whole thing stinks of a bureaucratic quagmire. 

Yet the Government pushes ahead. In February’s opening statement to Parliament, the Prime Minister rattled through her crowded legislative agenda, stuffed with complex and contentious programmes including DHB amalgamation, pandemic management, Fair Pay Agreements, and of course, Three Waters. 

Stuff’s political editor Luke Malpass reported on the speech, saying the emphasis on Three Waters “an extraordinary use of political capital” unlikely to proceed in current form. 

A protracted legislative process will create real political pain for the Government. At the time of this article’s publication, Nanaia Mahuta’s “reference group”, stuffed with Labour-friendly but Three Waters-suspicious mayors, is set to report back with recommendations to address accountability concerns surrounding the reform. 

In theory, the Government will then take time to consider these recommendations before unveiling hard legislation, which itself will go through a select committee process, necessitating another round of fraught public submissions. 

The Taxpayers’ Union will be campaigning for the Government to turn this select committee process into a nationwide roadshow, in the same way that the End of Life Choice Bill consultation was brought to every corner of the country. If a roadshow was good enough for euthanasia, it is clearly justified for far-reaching water reforms with fundamental impact on community control of ratepayer-funded water assets. 

At the same time, a newly-formed Water Users Group is challenging the Three Waters model in the High Court on the basis that the reforms have been justified by the Government using an incorrect interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi. This will be messy, to say the least [see article on page 33].

Worst of all, delays to legislation mean that public interest in the reforms will peak during local body campaign season. Any council candidate who senses the direction of political winds will be incorporating anti-Three Waters messages into their platform in town halls and on billboards across the country. 

And finally, if the legislation eventually does pass through Parliament, the National Party has committed to a repeal should they retake Government. 

In short, the passage and retention of Mahuta’s Three Waters reform is far from inevitable. The public will fight it at every step cannot be underestimated. But those of us on the front lines of opposition will need to work together, communicate, and share resources to demolish Mahuta’s programme of reform. 

If you work in the local government sector, you should expect to hear from the Taxpayers’ Union on our plan to stop Three Waters – and, if you share our concerns over this asset grab, we hope to hear back from you.  LG

Related posts

A regimen for partnership success

LG Magazine

Fixing local government: get the basics right 

LG Magazine

Time for a change

Contrafed Publishing