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Graham Adams: Three Waters: A sorry tale of government deception and media inertia

Nanaia Mahuta’s plans to reshape water infrastructure have been so poorly scrutinised that voters still don’t know whether iwi will receive royalties — despite the legislation being scheduled for next month. Graham Adams reports.

Anyone who has travelled around New Zealand over the summer break will likely have seen signs saying “Stop Three Waters!” on fences along highways and rural roads.

It’s also likely that at least a third of those travellers who noticed the signs will have little — or no — idea of what Three Waters will mean in practice.

That was the dismal information offered by the latest 1News Kantar Public Poll. And, unfortunately, 1News’ coverage of its own poll gave some clue why such ignorance is widespread, even as the issue divides councils — and a big chunk of voters — throughout the country.

In fact, the state broadcaster offered such brief and garbled analysis of the questions it had commissioned on Three Waters it was difficult to understand why it had bothered taking the nation’s pulse on the topic in the first place.

Its once-over-lightly segment certainly helped explain why 35 per cent of those polled had either not heard of Three Waters (13 per cent) or didn’t know enough about it have an opinion (22 per cent).

We did learn that only 26 per cent of those polled were in favour, while 40 per cent were opposed — but learned very little else.

TVNZ’s report by its deputy political editor, Maiki Sherman, is not an unusual example of how mainstream media has failed to comprehensively explain this subject to its audience. In particular, journalists have largely avoided covering the more contentious aspects of the plan to confiscate water assets from the nation’s 67 councils and divide them into four vast regions — including the provision for iwi to be given equal say with councils over appointing professionals to manage storm water, waste water and drinking water.

As a result, Auckland mayor Phil Goff’s comment to Sherman — “I think [what] Auckland would want is, obviously, being the majority provider of the new entity’s assets, to continue to have a majority say” — would have been indecipherable to most of TVNZ’s audience.

Goff was referring, of course, to the fact that iwi will be given an equal say with councils, and therefore Auckland — which will provide 93 per cent of the water assets in Water Services Entity A — will be reduced to a minority voice in deciding how those assets are used.

The provision for an equal role for iwi is the most inflammatory in the debate. In the case of the South Island, it means the government handing 50 per cent oversight of ratepayers’ assets to the wealthy Ngai Tahu iwi.

Despite representing the interests of fewer than 100,000 Maori, unelected Ngai Tahu members will have exactly the same say as representatives of the 20 councils that fall within Entity D. The boundaries of the entity are aligned with Ngai Tahu territory covering most of the South Island (minus Nelson and Marlborough) and will include a “connected” population of around 864,000 (including Maori).

Possibly because mainstream journalists appear not to want to draw attention to the role of iwi in the reforms, TVNZ’s report also didn’t mention the poll’s finding that a whopping 46 per cent of Maori were undecided on the issue.

Delving into that figure might, of course, expose just how many iwi fear being dominated by larger historical rivals under the new setup. The vast majority of journalists simply don’t want to explore the possibility that Three Waters is also highly contentious within Maoridom.

Just as inconvenient is the fact only 40 per cent of Labour voters support the changes. This would have made it clear that the unpopularity of Three Waters extends across party lines, but that wasn’t mentioned either

Instead, we were treated to a brief clip of Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta asserting: “There is resistance within parts of the local government community who do not want change and I don’t accept that.”

Say what? At last count, 60 of 67 councils were highly critical or opposed and the backlash has been so intense that the legislation due before Christmas is now scheduled for late March. That is not exactly “resistance within parts of the local government community”

The report later returned to Mahuta to ask whether her government had failed to sell the reforms well enough.

Mahuta: “I don’t agree. There are pockets of New Zealand — and certainly within certain councils — that don’t want any type of change.”

You’d have to say those are very large “pockets” given 40 per cent of those polled oppose the reforms.

Yet, Sherman, who fronted the two-minute segment, didn’t bother to quiz the minister on her minimising the extent of the opposition as “pockets” — or, if she had, the footage didn’t make the final cut for the news bulletin.

It seems extraordinary that such a deeply unpopular policy is treated so superficially — and in such piecemeal fashion — by the mainstream media. And if it weren’t for the Taxpayers’ Union, even more of the population would undoubtedly be in the dark about the proposed grand reshuffle of water assets.

The more than 150 signs throughout the country urging the public to “Stop Three Waters!” have been organised by the union, which has been the most prominent critic of the Three Waters legislation, apart from councils themselves.

Its executive director, Jordan Williams, has also been Mahuta’s most tenacious interviewer (despite the fact he is not a trained journalist). It’s true to say he didn’t receive satisfactory answers to almost any of the questions he put to her last November — including why co-governance with iwi is required to improve the nation’s water systems — but the very fact Mahuta went off on bizarre tangents in response to his questions spoke volumes.

Perhaps the most significant question Williams asked was: “Can you absolutely assure us — or will you be putting into legislation — restrictions on paying iwi groups water royalties?”

Mahuta’s long reply was accurately summed up as: “We have to prevent privatisation. Iwi cannot sell the assets. Iwi care about the long term.

The only conclusion to be drawn from Mahuta’s evasiveness is that under the new legislation iwi will indeed receive royalties (which are, of course, an attribute of ownership that will be denied to everyone else).

It is scandalous that journalists have still not extracted a satisfactory answer from Ardern or Mahuta about royalties — especially when the legislation is due to be introduced to Parliament next month.

In fact, the entire process of trying to foist Three Waters on the nation has been scandalous — beginning with the $3.5 million ad campaign launched in June that featured cartoons of people and animals unhappy with poor-quality water. The campaign sparked an uproar from councils, and it had to be retired after the Public Service Commission expressed concern the ads were “straying into advocating government policy rather than explaining policy’”.

In December came the shocking revelation that Cabinet had decided in July that the process would be mandatory. Yet Ardern and Mahuta had both continued to pretend for several months after the Cabinet meeting that councils were being genuinely consulted about whether they wanted to opt in or out.

Outrageously, both the Prime Minister and her Minister of Local Government denied they had misled the public over the matter.

Of course, it is possible to mislead people either by commission (ie directly lying) or by omission (ie failing to answer direct questions).

Mahuta has never answered questions about the likelihood of royalties being paid to iwi — which may, of course, result in higher water bills for all New Zealanders — and for months she deflected questions about the reforms being made mandatory. Ardern has similarly evaded direct questions.

When she was asked on rural radio show The Country on September 29 by host Jamie Mackay whether Three Waters was a fait accompli, the Prime Minister quickly skated away from the question.

Mackay: “Three Waters… is this a done deal, because I note jobs are already being advertised?”

In an obvious attempt to avoid answering, Ardern replied: “Look, the councils are responsible for their own employment and matters in that regard.”

In fact, the Prime Minister had known it was already a “done deal” more than three months before that radio interview.

When Judith Collins, as Leader of the Opposition, asked her in Parliament on 19 October last year: “Has Cabinet considered any proposals to make the Three Waters reforms compulsory?”, the Prime Minister did not deny it, but did not answer the question either.

Ardern replied: “Of course, Cabinet discussions remain in Cabinet until such a time as those decisions are publicly released” — before she went off on a tangent about the government feeling “very strongly about the fact that the status quo is not an option”.

When Collins pressed Ardern further in a follow-up question: “Will she rule out her government mandating the Three Waters reforms on all councils, thereby forcibly seizing ratepayer water assets?”, Ardern said, “I totally reject the premise of that question.”

Ardern similarly stonewalled a third question by Collins about the government “forcibly seizing council water assets”.

In an effort to soothe councils’ and voters’ anger, Mahuta has said she will work with selected representatives from iwi/Māori and councils for further feedback on the governance and accountability arrangements for Three Waters, with a deadline of February 28.

Why anyone, however, would trust the Local Government Minister or the Prime Minister to deal with them in good faith after their sustained deception about mandating Three Waters remains a mystery.

Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom. This article was first published at Democracy Project

3,658 views71 comments


As an aside to the main thrust of this thread, can you really believe the arrogance of Ardern ? If she had have spoken to the protesters at the Beehive for 5 minutes I am sure that they would have disbursed within a fairly short period of time. But no, she would not even recognise part of "her 5 million". She is so far up herself that her cheeks bulge !

And as for that dickhead Mallard turning on the sprinklers, so much for "caring for each other, be kind to each other ". Ardern is an utter fraud and the only startling thing about that statement is that about half of New Zealand's population are too thick to recognise…

Feb 15, 2022
Replying to

That is a real hoot!!!! Your letter .I love it.


New Zealand has had the wool totally pulled over their eyes by this government, but the worst part is the opposition are doing nothing about it, are they that afraid, or are they just bloody useless or both?.

Replying to

Careful 26azula, you'll have the anti-diversity police on your tail (so to speak). Just see how our fat finance man reacts !


Opposition to three waters is because of the iwi co-governance structure. The mainstream media has avoided reporting on the widespread opposition for one simple reason: because the requirements of the PIJF explicitly prohibit them from questioning co-governance. It is right there in black and white in the PIJF eligibility criteria; journos must "acknowledge Māori as a Te Tiriti partner" and "actively promote the principle of partnership". Coincidence? I think not. Consider that recent changes to local government have resulted in Maori being vastly over-represented at the council tables, so not only will they have 50% control of the waters entities, they will also have massive influence over the other 50%. And who was behind those changes? Nanaia Mahuta....coincidence? How about…

Feb 11, 2022
Replying to

Suggest that there's no problem with 'partners' for the purposes of progressing what was agreed in the Treaty. The problem is with the notion of a governance of NZ partnership, which it is crystal clear wasn't, isn't and never could be part of the Treaty.


Mr Adams is spot on.

Another is Sir Ian Taylor. He is the saviour of Rapid antigen tests (RATs) that can detect whether proteins of the COVID-19 coronavirus are present in person’s body. He is the businessman who did the Government's job for them, until they stiffed him, A true opinion I believe.

Sir Ian‘s piece in the Herald over last weekend echoes the stance this Government takes against those who talk publicly. In so doing, the government ruthlessly plugs an elected dictatorship’s viewpoints and policies. Aided, of course, by a $55 million fund to promote journalism. Appears to be the woke variety.

Back to the point. The collapse of the relationship between Sir Ian and the Government was on…

Feb 15, 2022
Replying to

In other words we don't have much choice in our main leaders, no faith in any of them.


John Hurley
John Hurley
Feb 09, 2022

Was just watching a CCC meeting discussing (I thought) Three Waters, then I discovered the committee name is

09.02.22 - Item 8 - Three Waters Infrastructure and Environment Committee - Resource Recovery

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