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Graham Adams: Three Waters - Voters don’t know the half of it

When the public grasps just how much power is being handed to iwi, opposition will skyrocket.

Car company magnate Henry Ford once said: “It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”

The same might be said of Nanaia Mahuta’s plans to confiscate the nation’s water infrastructure assets — paid for by generations of ratepayers and taxpayers — and to hand disproportionate control of them to iwi.

Although there is already widespread opposition to Three Waters — with the provisions for co-governance a significant objection — the vast majority of the voting public has no idea of just how much control Three Waters will hand to unelected Māori elites.

When more New Zealanders come to understand clearly that the real purpose of Three Waters is to broker a radical “Treaty settlement disguised as an infrastructure project” — as David Seymour put it — all political hell will break loose.

What stands between the public and such an explosive realisation is a lazy and myopic mainstream media, more than happy to take $55 million of government funds on condition they support a widely contested view of the Treaty as a 50:50 power-sharing arrangement between the Crown and iwi.

In fact, Three Waters goes much further than that. While it prescribes 50:50 co-governance at the overarching strategic level of the four Regional Representative Groups, iwi will have a dominating influence all the way down through the subordinate levels of management.

While the mainstream media snoozes, independent blogs and news sites are pointing out that the principal mechanism for such comprehensive control are the Te Mana o Te Wai statements, buried deep within the Water Services Entities Bill.

And it is clear these statements — edicts that can be issued at will by iwi and hapū and are effectively binding on the water services entity in their region — have no limits or restrictions on what may be included in them.

The bill simply states: “Mana whenua whose rohe or takiwā [territory] includes a freshwater body in the service area of a water services entity may provide the entity with a Te Mana o te Wai statement for water services.”

Anything that an iwi or hapū decides is consistent with their view of matauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) or tikanga (customs) may be used as a basis for making a binding order.

The statements have been described accurately by the pseudonymous citizen journalist Thomas Cranmer as handing “unbridled power” to iwi.

Kaipara’s former mayor Dr Jason Smith put it bluntly in mid-June in a tweet: “Whoever gets to write Te Mana o Te Wai statements gets control of water, land, planning rules and regulations, land use… TMoTW statements will cover every pipe, river, creek, farm pond or fresh water body.”

When the general public grasps clearly that Māori will have the right to direct how water is managed at a local level but that same right will be denied to everyone else, Ardern’s government will face a wave of revulsion among those who have little patience for race-based policy.

As Dr Jason Smith put it: “Actively excluding around 85 per cent of New Zealand’s people from engaging in a process which affects everyone/every square inch of the land and the salt water many miles out to sea deserves closer examination.

“If Te Mana o Te Wai is such an important principle then surely everyone (ngā tāngata katoa) should be able to be involved. So many parts of society actively excluded from participating is unacceptable and unjustifiable.”

As you might expect, the Māori King is fully aware of exactly what the Te Mana o Te Wai statements mean for iwi — and, unlike his Tainui relative, Nanaia Mahuta, he is not shy about spelling it out in public.

In August, at the 16th anniversary celebrations of his coronation, Kiingi Tuheitia told his influential audience at Ngaruawahia:

"The current government has embraced Te Mana o Te Wai. But what does that mean? It is more than a statement about the importance of water. Te Mana o Te Wai belongs to us, to our iwi. It is about our relationship to our taonga [treasures] and about the wairua [spirit] of our water:

“Our life force. Our past. Our present. Our future

"Waikato Awa [River] will always be part of the Kiingitanga. It is who we are…We live on the river; by the river and for the river. So too does every iwi in Aotearoa – kei a taatou te mana o te wai. I will say it again – Te Iwi Maaori owns the water.

“We are prepared to share our taonga for the wellbeing of all. But it must be done on our terms and our tikanga — that is our way.”

The exclusive right to issue Te Mana o Te Wai statements embedded in the Three Waters legislation makes it clear that “[sharing] taonga… on our terms and our tikanga” will effectively mean: “Let’s compromise. Let’s do it our way.”

The Water Services Entities Bill, which establishes the four regional entities, passed its first reading in Parliament in June and the Finance and Expenditure Committee is currently sifting through 88,000 submissions — with the overwhelming majority opposed to the bill.

National’s shadow spokesman for local government, Simon Watts, said he could “count the number of submissions that were in support of the bill on my two hands and the remainder of that was significant opposition”.

In the wake of the recent local-body elections that have also been widely viewed as a hostile verdict on Three Waters, Jacinda Ardern has suddenly taken a more conciliatory approach to discussing Three Waters. She has assured voters the government remains “open to changes” but there are no signs so far that her administration will back away from its legislative programme in any meaningful way.

And the Prime Minister’s assurances will undoubtedly be viewed as hollow. Her record on telling the truth about Three Waters is as shameful as that of her Minister of Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta.

After all, both the Prime Minister and her senior minister allowed the nation’s 67 councils to provide extensive feedback late last year about whether they wanted to join the scheme when both knew full well a decision to mandate signing up had already been made by Cabinet months earlier in July.

In Parliament last October, National’s Nicola Willis held up the front page of the Wairarapa Times-Age — featuring a quote from Masterton councillor Tina Nixon about Three Waters — and asked if Mahuta had seen it.

The phrase “a deceitful, lying pack of bastards” was plastered across it in huge type.

It was clear to everyone that the “consultation” with councils had been a sham all along. For the Prime Minister to now claim the government is “open to changes” — and expect to be believed — is laughable.

It is not only the undemocratic nature of Three Waters handing unbridled power to iwi that will make voters’ blood boil either. There is also the question of just how risky billions of dollars of highly leveraged loans overseen by a novel governance structure will be for the nation’s finances.

In a Substack post last week, Thomas Cranmer — an internationally recognised lawyer in the field of leveraged finance — wrote: “The unusual mix of massive debt allied to an untested model of governance is, in my professional opinion, a recipe for disaster. And a disaster that could easily turn out to be ruinous for the country’s finances.”

He has also pointed out this week to The Platform that “the sheer size of the debt required for Three Waters will just keep on growing”.

He says government documents show there are “no plans for it to be repaid in the foreseeable future. It is effectively perpetual debt on a massive scale.”

Even the apparently “free money” being dished out right now by the government to councils to use for local projects is simply being put on the nation’s credit card.

Cranmer: “Whatever those councils choose to spend that money on — whether it is a new library or some improvements to a local park — will become debt that will require ratepayers to service long into the future.

“The ‘better-off' and ‘no-worse-off’ funding / bribes that Mahuta is handing out to councils now will form part of that Three Waters debt which we will all pay interest on every year for the foreseeable future. It will still be outstanding in 2048 with no plans to pay it off!”

In the weekend, Winston Peters made it clear at NZ First’s party conference what he thought of the confiscation of assets in Three Waters and handing power over them to iwi:

“This simply is theft masked as ‘reform’.”

Ardern and Mahuta now have Act and NZ First both competing for votes on the highly combustible issue of co-governance and Maori separatism, with an immediate focus on Three Waters.

With David Seymour and Winston Peters — two of the nation’s most formidable and capable Māori politicians — on the case, voters can expect the temperature of the debate to rise sharply.

Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore. This column was first published at The Platform

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