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Rarely has a political party promised so much in an election campaign and achieved so little during its time in office.

Labour made extravagant promises to end child poverty, to build 100,000 houses over 10 years and make housing more affordable, to make a major contribution to reducing greenhouse gases, and to improve our education system. Instead child poverty has increased on most measures; the number of new houses built has been trivial and, while house prices are at last easing somewhat, they are still among the most expensive in the world; we’re still burning imported coal to keep the lights on; and more and more kids are coming out of the taxpayer-funded school system unable to read and write.

And to top it off, New Zealanders are now facing the highest inflation in more than 30 years. Some record!

But one of the things Labour did not promise in its election campaign – indeed, did not even hint at as far as I have been able to determine – was the effective confiscation of the so-called “Three Waters infrastructure”, for drinking water, waste water, and storm water, paid for by ratepayers all over the country over decades. Not a hint of that in their election campaign, despite its being the largest confiscation of assets by any government in New Zealand history.

The Government tried to win public support for this outrageous confiscation of community-funded assets by a taxpayer-funded media campaign aimed at convincing voters that the nation’s water infrastructure was in desperate condition, with lots of people getting sick from contaminated water and some people dying. But the only people who could be said to have died from contaminated drinking water were four, in a single incident of contaminated water in Havelock North. The cause of that contamination was quickly identified, and the local authority fixed it.

Yes, there are some parts of the country – Wellington being a good example – where the local council has manifestly failed to invest in adequate waste water infrastructure, but that failure is a very long way from being widespread. Having a national agency to monitor water quality may have merit. But the occasional slip-ups hardly warrant the massive confiscation which the Government is moving to put in place.

When the Government initially announced the proposed confiscation in the middle of 2021 it pretended that participation in the scheme would be voluntary: councils could choose whether to join in the nationwide scheme. But after many councils – including the largest, Auckland Council – made known their strong opposition to the Government’s proposal, the Government changed its tune, and announced that participation would be compulsory for all local authorities.

The Prime Minister pretends that local councils will still own the water infrastructure which their ratepayers have funded but by every measure on which “ownership” is judged, this is a total nonsense: local councils will have absolutely no authority over the water infrastructure in their area. Among other things, because any new urban development is dependent on water infrastructure being put in place in a timely way, this means that the great majority of the decisions which a council makes around urban development – where roads and houses should go – will be effectively determined by the four enormous “entities” into which all water infrastructure will be grouped.

Even the Auditor General has expressed serious doubt about how the four entities will be held accountable for their actions. Clearly the local authorities which may have some ownership interest in those entities will have not the slightest ability to hold those entities to account, and the Auditor General has said as much.

Even the geographical extent of the entities is a nonsense. Perhaps there is some logic in grouping almost the entire South Island into Entity D, but the logic of Entity C – which groups Nelson, Blenheim, Wellington, Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne into one – is impossible to understand until one understands that tribal boundaries have some relevance to the boundaries.

And this gets to the worst aspect of the proposal, and that is the totally outrageous authority which the policy gives to tribal groups. The legislation establishing the four entities makes it clear that it is tribal authorities which will control the four entities, not the local authorities which notionally retain ownership of the assets.

The appointment of the directors who will be responsible for the day-to-day operation of the entities is a convoluted process but it is explicitly provided in the legislation that the committees selecting the boards must have “knowledge of, and experience and expertise in relation to… the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi; and perspectives of mana whenua, matauranga, tikanga and te ao Maori”. And that the directors must have similar expertise in matters Maori.

Added to this control of the boards of the four entities, only tribal groups will be entitled to issue so-called Te Mana o Te Wai statements to give those tribal groups effective control of any body of water in their territory. And to put the matter beyond any doubt, the Minister of Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta, has appointed her sister Tipa (who is already the co-chairman of the Maori Health Authority) as chair of the Maori Advisory Group which controls the water regulator Taumata Arowai.

The audacity of the Government’s move is surely astonishing. The effective confiscation of billions of dollars in water infrastructure assets built up over decades by ratepayers throughout the country is astonishing enough in its own right. But then to hand effective control of those assets to tribal groups up and down the country is almost beyond belief: it is a full frontal assault on any concept of democracy.

This policy alone should cost the Government next year’s election. If it does not, it is a sad indictment on the Opposition parties, on the media, and indeed on every New Zealander.

This article was first published at Elocal magazine

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