Three mayors get together to call for three big changes to the Three Waters legislation

A triumvirate of recently-elected mayors have teamed up to put their names on a proposal for changes to the controversial Three Waters reform programme.

It sounds a bit like the beginning of a tired joke: two Cantabrians and an Aucklander walk into a bar. Instead, the geographical spread of the united mayors was half-jokingly used by Christchurch’s Phil Mauger as a call for others to get behind the proposal.

“If two Cantabrians and an Aucklander can get together and agree on this as a good starting point, then the sky’s the limit,” Mauger said.

He and fellow new mayor Wayne Brown of Auckland met with Waimakariri mayor Dan Gordon yesterday in Brown’s office to officially launch a proposal reforming the reforms by pushing for three big changes.

These are

► stormwater assets remaining in local council hands alongside transport and drainage,

► provision of affordable finance to make sure of high standard investment into water infrastructure, and

► encouraging local government entities to consolidate into regional water organisations.

► The proposal isn’t totally damning of Three Waters, with the mayors saying they support and endorse Taumata Arowai, the new water regulator.

However, Brown was unambiguous in his disdain for the central Government’s plan.

“The Government’s plan will just not work,” he said, and questioned why Watercare, which he said was Auckland’s best-performing council-controlled organisation, would be better off with having to cede control to Northland, and why Northland would want its water taken care of by Auckland.

Words of praise for a CCO seem unusual coming from Brown’s mouth, as he spent much of his campaign and the weeks since he won the election detailing his criticisms and wishlist of reforms for other CCOs such as Auckland Transport and Ports of Auckland.

But when it comes to water, he’d rather keep things at a more local level.

The current Three Waters reform would come in the form of four entities each managing water in a chunk of the country.

The three mayors said four was an arbitrary number based on unsound analysis.

“There are no meaningful economies of scale from large entities distant from the communities they serve,” they said. “We believe the communities can decide what make sense for their regions.”

The triumvirate in truth actually consists of four entities, with Manawatū mayor Helen Worboys originating the talks that became the proposal, according to Gordon.

Gordon said Brown and Mauger joined later, but the proposal still had their fingerprints. He was delighted to have the new leaders of the country’s two biggest cities in his corner.

Whether the proposal will bear fruit in terms of actually changing the impending legislation remains to be seen, but it is certainly true that Brown and Mauger’s simultaneous ascendancy to the mayoralty of the city’s two biggest cities echoes the growing public appetite for reforms to reforms.

Three Waters is a sign of a changing country and changing world, for better or worse, and in 2022 it seems that such change is being looked on as the status quo.

So for two business-backgrounded political tree-shakers like Brown and Mauger to back Gordon and Worboy’s proposal will come as good news to the New Zealanders who voted in attempt to shatter that status quo.

The three mayors said they had put out feelers to other mayors across the country and were waiting to see whether it would garner any further support.

However, each admitted that aside from some informal divulgences, most of their councillors would only have been officially informed of this move on Monday morning, around the same time the press and the greater public became aware of it.

Gordon said this was a starting point from where the three mayors could go off and build a consensus, be it with other mayors, their own councillors, or even government ministers who Brown said were “casting about for a solution”.

Gordon called the legislation “a loose ball that popped out of a real nasty ruck”, a rugby analogy deployed in honour of the Women’s Rugby World Cup.

The rugby chat continued with Mauger, who said he was especially worried about retention of stormwater assets in Christchurch, and said the city “also hopes the Prime Minister and the Local Government Minister will pick up the ball and run with it”.

“We don’t want them to succeed,” he said in what was hopefully not a Freudian slip. “I mean we do want them to succeed!”

The three mayors were each careful to underline the fact that they are not against a reform of water management or indeed a greater tip of the hat to co-governance.

Brown compared his approach to former mayor Phil Goff’s, who also thought the legislation didn’t serve Auckland effectively. They are the kindest words Brown has had for his predecessor, whose retirement from local body politics he celebrated on the night of his election by singing ‘Hit the road, Goff, and don’t you come back, no more.”

But while the three mayors said they were not opposed to co-governance, there were certain words used which have at times been employed as signifiers of the debate around greater Māori representation in the power dynamics of New Zealand politics.

“It’s time for the old divisive argument to end and a new consensus to begin,” Gordon said.

When it came to speaking on co-governance in particular, Brown said the proposal was “about providing a solution to the difficult problem of providing Auckland and New Zealand’s three water supplies in a manner that doesn’t become divisive for our country.”

Co-governance as a source of racial division has been an argument taken up by its detractors in recent times, although it could be said that both politicians were merely referring to the heated and controversial public debate of Three Waters more as it related to worries of central government over-reach.

However, the three mayors’ proposal does lay out the need for a direct relationship with mana whenua, saying asset owners should be required to engage with mana whenua on what role in investment decision-making best reflects and promotes their roles and responsibilities

“It encourages local arrangements between Three Waters asset owners and mana whenua to be co-designed locally so that they are more direct and meaningful.”

Certainly the Three Waters legislation is a thorny and labyrinthine topic for politicians to find any number of reason to oppose or support it.

However, there does remain a strong undercurrent of Three Waters protest fuelled by an antipathy towards political structures that lend more credence to Māori voices.

For the mayors of Auckland, Christchurch and Waimakariri, navigating the choppy waters of putting forth their public criticism of the reform without emboldening the racist element of Three Waters opposition will be easier said than done.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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