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GRAHAM ADAMS: Labour’s Three Waters refresh is a tragi-comedy

The government’s disdain for democracy is a gift to National and Act.


Last week, we watched the Prime Minister rebrand the contentious Three Waters project with a name so banal it is surprising he didn’t fall asleep while announcing it. “Affordable Water Reform” is, in essence, a Post-It note to stick on your computer while you struggle to come up with an arresting title. If you suggested “Affordable Water Reform” to your colleagues in an advertising agency they’d assume you were joking.


There’s a lot that is risible in Labour’s ongoing attempts to find a Three Waters arrangement the nation might even grudgingly accept. The Water Services Entities Act was passed in December — and within hours a second bill that included extensive amendments to the first was introduced to Parliament. In fact, that bill is as long as the Act it seeks to amend. Now, the government will introduce and pass further legislation to implement the changes Hipkins announced last Thursday — as well as “associated matters” — all before this year’s election.


At the press conference held inauspiciously in a car park in Greytown, Hipkins also attempted to amend his own party’s history. Apparently, everyone has misunderstood all along what co-governance actually means. The Regional Representative Groups — which have now metastasised from four overarching strategic groups to 10 — aren’t examples of co-governance after all, according to the Prime Minister. This despite the extremely inconvenient fact that he, and Labour’s most influential ministers — including Nanaia Mahuta, Kieran McAnulty, Grant Robertson and the recently departed Jacinda Ardern — have repeatedly referred to the RRGs, with their 50:50 split of mana whenua and council representatives, as examples of co-governance.


Inevitably, this bid to magic away co-governance has resulted in a glorious muddle, with a Newshub headline declaring “Hipkins rejects [that the] new water reforms include co-governance” while 1News announced “Three Waters reset: McAnulty explains why co-governance stays”.


The Prime Minister and McAnulty faced the media together in the car park. Hipkins promoted him from Associate Minister to Minister of Local Government in late January because it was clear that Nanaia Mahuta’s handling of Three Waters had become electorally toxic. She retained her portfolio of Foreign Affairs, however, and, despite her well-known aversion to travel, has barely been seen since. It appears the minister has suddenly developed a taste for long flights, high-level meetings and foreign hotels. Rumours that she has been locked in the basement of the Beehive until after the election are entirely mischievous.


McAnulty has shone brightly in comparison with his predecessor — not least because he actually answers questions rather than answering a question that hadn’t been asked, which Mahuta had turned into an art form.


Lean and wiry as a whippet, McAnulty stares unwaveringly ahead while speaking without moving his lips any more than is strictly necessary. You get the impression he’s happy to be seen as a hard man. Certainly, his cultivated persona of a cross between good keen man Barry Crump and mixed martial artist Conor McGregor lends itself to the perception of him being capable of tough in-fighting, which won’t do him any harm. No doubt he will be hoping against hope that most voters won’t see him and the Prime Minister as having slavishly kowtowed to the demands of the Māori caucus.


That hope would have been more plausible if Waikato-Tainui grandee Tuku Morgan had managed to contain his effervescent glee and had not immediately performed a victory dance for media, declaring he was “over the moon” and that iwi were “euphoric” with the changes to Three Waters.


Morgan was happy to boast that when he and other iwi representatives had met ministers Kieran McAnulty, Willie Jackson, Kiritapu Allan and Kelvin Davis a week earlier and presented their immovable demands, they had been warmly received. Their three bottom lines concerned “Partnership Boards”; the preservation of Entity A incorporating Auckland and Northland; and the status of Te Mana o te Wai statements. All these demands were met.


Morgan crowed: “Those are the three points we debated with the ministers and we got what we wanted. I am very, very happy.”


Act’s David Seymour characterised the situation as — Māori caucus 1; Hipkins 0. He said: “Co-government remains part of Three Waters because the Prime Minister was either too scared to stare down the powerful Māori caucus, or he did and he lost.


“This shows how powerful the Māori caucus is and that Chris Hipkins has no control over them. If Hipkins had control over of them, he would have at least dropped the unpopular and divisive co-government element of Three Waters. Instead, Māori MPs are riding roughshod over him.”


If this view becomes widespread, it will be disastrous for Labour. After Hipkins sent Mahuta tumbling down the Cabinet rankings from No 8 to 16 in late January, his apparent willingness to keep the Māori caucus on a much tighter rein than Jacinda Ardern ever managed was an important factor in his surge in popularity. And after his announcement there would be imminent changes to the Three Waters programme, many had high hopes he would deal decisively with the most controversial aspects of Three Waters, particularly co-governance. Those hopes have been shattered.


A perceived victory by the Māori caucus will have ramifications far beyond the popularity of Three Waters (to use its dead-name, as most will). It will signal to voters that if the Labour Party is re-elected with Hipkins at the helm of a coalition it will continue to give way at every turn to the Māori nationalists — not only in its own caucus but also in the Greens and Te Pāti Māori (if either or both make it back into Parliament).


John Tamihere — a former co-leader of Te Pāti Māori and now its president — did nothing to allay such fears when he told Newshub Nation in the weekend that the debate around co-governance was simply misguided. “The right to the asset called water is still a customary entitlement to all Māori,” he said. “Māori rightly say, ‘How do we get co-governance when we own 100 per cent of it?’ The real issue is how do the Pākehās get into the room [via co-governance]?” Evidently, for Te Pāti Māori, co-governance is simply a way station towards full control of water at every level.


And any lingering hopes that Labour might defend democracy disappeared when McAnulty was interviewed by Jack Tame on Q&A on Sunday. Asked whether he agreed that the RRGs, with their equal numbers of iwi and council representatives, are “not strictly a one-person, one-vote model”, McAnulty said firmly, “Yes”. In his mind, democracy with equal suffrage seems to be an academic concept that is incompatible with honouring the Treaty.


Voters, of course, have never been asked to approve such a profound constitutional shift. Yet it is clear that we now have “democracy with New Zealand characteristics” sanctioned at the highest levels of government.


All this opens a clear path for National and Act to legitimately damn any prospective Labour / Greens / Te Pāti Māori coalition as the sworn enemies of democracy — at least of the traditional “one person, one vote of equal value” kind that New Zealanders have cherished since suffrage was extended to women in 1893. It’s obvious now that a win for any combination of the three main parties of the left will further embed the mechanisms and policies of an ethno-state.


Although McAnulty told Newsroom’s Jenna Lynch that while he didn’t think Three Waters would be an election issue, he also said voters have “a clear choice at this election”. National’s proposed water management model, he said, “doesn’t have mana whenua representation; our one does”. A general election is rarely fought on a single issue but this is so important to the nation’s future it will undoubtedly be pivotal.


One consequence of Hipkins’ and McAnulty’s clumsy attempts to diminish the importance of “co-governance” in Three Waters is that it invites a focus on the power and scope of Te Mana o te Wai statements. These are edicts that only iwi and hapū can issue and — as Mahuta and the Department of Internal Affairs have affirmed — the Water Services Entities are obliged to give effect to them. They give Māori untrammelled power over freshwater and coastal and geothermal water. Although many believe the statements only relate to the purity and health of water, that is far from the truth.


Anything an iwi or hapū thinks is relevant to Māori wellbeing — whether in employment opportunities, investment or spiritual matters — can be the subject of a Te Mana o te Wai statement. In fact, the last category may even include accommodating the presence of a taniwha. When Act MP Simon Court asked Mahuta last October: “Are spiritual beliefs — such as the existence of a taniwha on a bend in the river — permissible subject matter for Te Mana o te Wai statements?”, she did not deny that possibility.


Former mayor of Kaipara Dr Jason Smith, who was appointed to Mahuta’s Working Group on Three Waters in late 2021 and has been a consistent critic of the statements’ undemocratic nature, responded to Hipkins’ and McAnulty’s announcement last week by drawing attention once again to their role.


Describing the edicts as “the very core, the citadel at the heart of the Three Waters programme”, he wrote: “Te Mana o te Wai statements are in a league of their own within the Three Waters reforms, far removed from the already-controversial co-governance arrangements, or entity size and shape….


“Te Mana o Te Wai statements are legislated to cover every square centimetre of all the land, including under every home, farm or place of business as well as many kilometres out to sea. Simple and powerful, whatever these statements contain must be put into effect, no questions asked. The problem is only some parts of society are allowed to write them, though they affect us all. There is no co-governance in the simple truth that Māori only may write Te Mana o te Wai statements. There is nothing “co-“ about this, it’s a different type of constitutional arrangement from anything we’ve seen before.”


Dr Smith predicted the undemocratic and divisive nature of the statements “sets up everyone for civil unrest in the future”.


Given that the statements have been almost entirely ignored by mainstream journalists, it was surprising that Hipkins felt the need to mention them in last week’s announcement. Discussing co-governance, the Prime Minister said: “There is also an ability for Te Mana o te Wai statements [to be issued by iwi]. And we’ve introduced an equivalent for other significant interested parties in water use to also have a say in that.”


The operating principles of the Water Services Entities, which manage day-to-day operations on the ground, already include engaging with the communities they serve but they are under no obligation to act on their recommendations.


Tuku Morgan made it clear, however, that no matter what legislative amendments are introduced, Te Mana o te Wai statements will lose none of their force. He told the NZ Herald: “Even though there’s a provision for communities to have a priority status, it will not in any way shape or form, overshadow, minimise, or compromise the standing of Te Mana o te Wai statements being provided by iwi and hapū.”


The fact Hipkins referred to Te Mana o te Wai statements, albeit briefly, means news has reached his ears that they are an issue that needs addressing publicly. But he’ll have to do a lot better than glossing over them — or offering a sop to the 84 per cent of the population excluded from issuing them — if he hopes to placate the growing number of voters who are aware of their scope and deeply undemocratic nature.


Labour strategists should be very worried. Co-governance is already electoral dynamite but Te Mana o te Wai statements are thermonuclear devices in comparison.


Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by The Common Room

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