Opinion: New Zealanders have been done a disservice by the sloppy language and reckless spin on all sides of the Three Waters debate.

The Government was forced to rewrite TV and newspaper adverts that angry mayors branded taxpayer-funded misinformation, then Prime Minister Chris Hipkins quietly stepped back from his predecessor’s reliance on modelling that an average 34,000 people get sick from waterborne illness every year.

From opposition groups (with a big or small ‘o’), there was also reckless misrepresentation of how co-governance would work, ramped up rhetoric about “asset seizures” or, at its worse, a blithe refusal to even admit the extent of the problems with New Zealand’s water infrastructure.

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Bringing in the fresh-faced Kieran McAnulty from small-town Wairarapa was no doubt intended to signify a similarly fresh approach to the Government’s communications with local communities. 

“Here’s the guts of it,” drawled McAnulty, stepping up to the amassed media microphones in a Greytown carpark to announce the reset of the Three Waters reforms.

His message resonated in many communities. For some, like New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom, Stratford mayor Neil Volzke and Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst, they say the move to 10 regional water incorporations will likely tip them towards backing the reforms.

But with the Prime Minister’s disclosure that those reforms would henceforth be dubbed “Affordable Water Infrastructure”, the water had already been sloshed from the cup. The tea leaves left behind warn of some sloppy language to come, for those trying to get their heads around the competing claims on cost and governance.

1) The Government borrowed from the book of cut-price advertising, when it glibly rebranded its reforms as ‘Affordable Water Infrastructure’. There’s little chance the new brand will supersede the tainted Three Waters brand in the public consciousness, certainly not before the election, but it’s an attempt to remind voters there will be benefits to their hip pocket.

The problem, as we reported last week, is the reset from the proposed four big supra-regional water incorporations to 10 mid-sized regional ones will, in fact, cost households more. 

Not as much as they would have if the Government were to stick with the existing 67 councils, but more than the model before Parliament that promised cost efficiencies by managing water infrastructure through just four big incorporations. Up to $2 billion a year more by 2054 for the country’s households, at a very rough estimate based on the modelling of Internal Affairs’ Scottish consultants.

We can’t help remembering the scaffolding company implicated when its poorly designed and overloaded structures under the Panmure Bridge collapsed in February 2017. Six maintenance workers were plunged into the water below, though none was seriously injured. Worksafe prosecuted and the firm was fined $150,000.

So (to the dismay of the Advertising Standards Authority) the company launched a radio advertising campaign: “Affordable Scaffolding will keep you up up up and keep you safe and sound,” it merrily jingled.

The Government’s rebrand isn’t so cynical – after all, its reforms will certainly make drinking water and wastewater safer, unlike that affordable Panmure scaffolding. But it is pretty barefaced to brand the changes as affordable, when they will actually cost councils and communities more.

2) Just how many seats are there at the table? This criticism may be over-sensitive, but in the anxious assurance that “every local council in the country, as well as mana whenua, is getting a seat at the table”, the Government deliberately or inadvertently downplays the place of Māori on the regional representation groups overseeing each of the 10 new water incorporations.

Hipkins and McAnulty may argue that “it’s not co-governance” and that “a seat at the table” is colloquial – but the fact is that iwi and at least one council (Auckland) will get more than just one seat at the table. This is not a bad thing. 

Water has been acknowledged by successive governments (both Labour and National-led) to be a treasure or taonga under article two of the Treaty of Waitangi.

So it’s legitimate, for instance, that Ngāi Tahu should have as strong a voice on the southern water corporations as the clusters of small councils. So too that Tainui, whose marae have dotted the banks of the Waikato River and west coast estuaries, and whose people fished in those waters for many centuries before they welcomed European settlers, should have a strong voice. We could go on …

The balance of the structure hasn’t changed; iwi and councils will still intermingle in equal numbers on the 10 regional representative groups. What is unfortunate is that the Government now feels the need to downplay the role of Māori in the governance.

3) Below the board, or below the belt? That’s the question prompted by McAnulty’s further attempt to minimise the role of these representative groups. He says every district council will have representation on their local water services entities through the regional representative groups, where council representatives and iwi will form a partnership to provide strategic oversight and direction to the entities.

“These groups will continue to sit below the governance board, in which each member will be appointed on merit and qualification,” he says.

Under questioning, he says the 50-50 council/iwi membership survived only because of the representative groups’ subordinate status. “I was comfortable with what has been proposed, because it’s a regional representative group. It may have been a different outcome if this was actually the governing board, but it’s not.”

But it’s not correct that the representative groups are subordinate. Somewhat like a congress of shareholders, they will appoint the directors to the governance board. According to the bill before Parliament (and the government says this won’t change) they will provide regional and local level direction and oversight, including setting strategic and performance expectations, and approving the strategic direction.

By any definition they sit above the governance board. To claim these bodies sit below the boards of qualified directors is wrong, and downplays the importance of the council and iwi stakeholders in determining how the water assets are managed for their communities. 

4) There were slips, there were slops, and there’s also a slap at Communities 4 Local Democracy, the grouping of smaller district councils that has been lobbying to retain the water assets on council books. McAnulty dismisses the group’s criticisms of the new model as a reheated version of the same unpalatable, unpopular plan.

“I say they should go and count how many councils they actually have behind that position,” he retorts. “I’ve been speaking to mayors that are members of Communities 4 Local Democracy that are in favour of today’s proposal. I know the chairs aren’t, but I don’t think they represent 31 councils any more.”

Well, we’ve been talking to the mayors too. Newsroom has interviewed eight mayors in key Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay and Bay of Plenty districts who agree that the Government’s changes to the Three Waters are a step in the right direction. 

Nobody says they’re quitting Communities 4 Local Democracy; not yet. In fact, the organisation says all its member council (there are 30, since Christchurch left in September last year) signed off on the statement.

Mayors of member councils such as Faylene Tunui in Kawerau, Craig Little in Wairoa, Kirsten Wise in Napier, Alex Walker in Central Hawkes Bay and Phil Nixon in South Taranaki all express optimism the Government is now listening to their voices.

They say there’s more work to be done, though, and so they intend to keep working together with the other councils to lobby for further changes, such as keeping the assets on council balance sheets (Napier, South Taranaki), or direct government funding to councils to replace the cancelled $1.5 billion “better off” funding (Central Hawkes Bay).

This is about more than just tit-for-tat between the Government and its critics. It’s about trust between central and local government, and the communities they are both meant to represent. The Future for Local Government Review has warned of a serious breakdown in that trust.

Groups like Communities 4 Local Democracy are legitimate and important in lobbying government; they have volunteered constructive criticism and put up well thought-out alternative models – unlike other critics. They and the Government need to learn to work together without sledging.

There is much in Kieran McAnulty’s argument that is on-point. He is right to cite the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle as highlighting the criticality of water services, especially stormwater, for community adaptation and resilience. “They have also shown the fragility of critical water infrastructure in some areas,” he says.

But if it’s important to get these Three Waters reforms right as he claims – and it absolutely is important – then it’s equally vital that champions and critics of reforms set aside the spin and give New Zealanders a straight account of what the reforms mean, going into this year’s election.

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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