Three Waters / Local Governance Antagonism Continues

The Government’s flagship legislative effort this term has been the controversial 3 Waters reform proposals, in fact carried over from the previous term, but which must be finalised before the next election if it is to have any hope of coming into effect. Part of the impetus for the Three Waters reforms is to bring into effect one of the Government’s proposed iwi-Crown co-governance models. The other model which is currently also fairly controversial is at local government level where Maori electoral seats are being introduced around most territorial and regional council tables. Both reflect the impetus made by Labour in every term of office since the 1970s to implement the Treaty of Waitangi in various ways in governance. As these measures are official Labour Party policy they should have been expected to get widespread support from Party members. This however is unfortunately not the case, with both local Labour politicians and rank and file party members campaigning actively against both proposals.

In the case of local government co-governance, the implementation of this varies council by council according to their makeup, the iwi present in their territory, and other factors. In Canterbury, the proposals for the Canterbury Regional Council (Ecan) have gained recent prominence. The Canterbury Regional Council (Ngai Tahu Representation) Bill was introduced to Parliament late last year and is currently at select committee stage, with the report back to the House due in June. The Bill provides for two electoral seats at the Council to be held by appointed Ngai Tahu representatives. The positions would be appointed by the iwi following an internal electoral process. The seats are therefore elected by iwi members and qualify as a democratic form of election. There has however been considerable opposition expressed to this in submissions to the select committee. Most of the opposing submitters have suggested the seats be filled by open nomination and electoral processes. This brings with it however the need to create and maintain local Maori electoral rolls. The main reason for the challenge is the misguided notion that the local seats in Ngai Tahu’s own rohe should be open to any Maori and be voted on by any Maori voters (like the Maori parliamentary seats), which makes no sense whatsoever when Ngai Tahu has legal recognition as the holder of exclusive governance for the Canterbury region. In short, it is either the assumption that Ngai Tahu are capable of running their own internal electoral process, or they are not, that is the main paradigm being addressed in the submissions on the Bill. There is a crucial difference between these two as the election of a representative through an open electoral process changes their accountability to their electoral constituency instead of to the iwi itself.

A similar type of debacle has been occurring in the 3 Waters reforms over the co governance proposals in part but more particularly the loss of direct council control. Labour Party opposition mentioned above in Christchurch has included active antagonism from the Mayor and many of the 2021 councillors on CCC against 3 Waters, a submission opposing the Ngai Tahu representation Bill from the Beckenham Neighbourhood Association whose submissions coordinator is a well known local Labour figure, and an article on Garry Moore’s Tuesday Club blog opposing the Ngai Tahu bid for co-governance in the case of 3 Waters. TIC will look at each of these in turn. The BNA submission to the Ngai Tahu bill select committee is readily available from the Parliament website. In summary this submission has taken an ideological stance on the electoral process for which the Ngai Tahu representatives should gain election to the regional council. Their claim that “Mäori membership of ECan should be achieved by the democratic election of Mäori councillors by Mäori voters to whom they are democratically accountable” attempts to shift the purpose of electing Maori representatives from being representatives of the iwi, to representatives of their electors. A clause in BNA’s submission reads “In our view, the principle of democratic accountability, as exemplified in the election of Mäori MPs, should prevail at local government level just as it has applied to Mäori representation at Parliamentary level since 1868, and should
override considerations based on local tribal mana whenua status”. This is a clear statement that BNA, and by implication some notable Labour members, that the electoral process should be available to all Maori residents of Canterbury, regardless of iwi, and that the electors should be represented by these elections rather than iwi. These are largely semantical and ideological arguments not driven by common sense. The inference of the submission is that Ngai Tahu corporate interests would seek to dominate the electoral process rather than allowing its members a free vote. There is of course no evidence that this is actually the case. Nor is any such standard applied to the electoral process for any other seats, since there is no reasonably practical way of limiting the influence of corporate interests, through donations or other means, on normal council elections.

On the 3 Waters matter, the former mayor of Christchurch Garry Moore, also well connected in Labour, has castigated what he calls “Nahi Tahu becom[ing] increasingly strident” towards councils that have chosen to join the C4LD group that opposes the government’s policies. One of the more iniquitous comments that Moore makes is to repeat a statement from the Mayor of Westland questioning why “15% of the population should control 50% of the resources”. This is really just another twist on older racist tropes about the percentage of Maori blood that individual iwi members have. The simple and straightforward answer to Moore’s comment is that the Treaty granted the partnership between Maori and the Crown, at a time when iwi were a distinct majority of the population, and this right is not diminished in any shape or form by the relative strengths of iwi versus the rest. To read through Moore’s article, it is mostly the opinion of someone who has the fervent belief that council politicians can do no wrong and that the 3 Waters reform in just about any level is totally unnecessary. The problem with this approach is that Labour claims to stand for something on a national level – their bedrock core principles and policies that they are generally known for – and on the local level, their aim is purely to win and hold power, without any regard for what is right and just. So we have local Labour political types defending any viewpoint under the sun on the grounds that it is local democracy at work., regardless of what particular principle is at play, or lack thereof.

The key problem for local government in establishing something that is democratic is that it is extremely prone to corruption. The local nature of councils mean they are dealing with communities that their members are intrinsically resident of, and in which therefore there is a strong incentive to focus on the groups which are most strident or organised within those communities. These tend to be associations which either have a lot of money themselves or are made up of individuals that do. In short, vote buying. The reason the 3 Waters debate is happening in the first place is that local councils have a woeful record on providing and maintaining good quality infrastructure like pipes. The Government understandably wants more accountability before it hands over billions to fix these problems, that councils are supposed to fund themselves, because the problem for Wellington all of the time is they are constantly having to step in and fix many problems that local government is not capable of managing properly, courtesy of the public purse. A large amount of the C4LD case is blatant nonsense, such as that it amounts to a confiscation of a community owned resource, when in fact it is just a transfer from one government entity to another. And basically, a core issue is that C4LD is opposed to co-governance. Now you will get the Mayor of Auckland advocating the Watercare model and that it works well. But the Watercare model is different from that which is used nearly everywhere else in New Zealand. In the Wellington region they have Wellington Water to manage the water assets. But it neither owns the assets nor funds them. Both of those remain firmly under local council control. Watercare was, in fact, imposed upon the Auckland region by the 1990 National government, which stepped in following the 1989 local government reforms of its predecessor and imposed further requirements, one of which was to separate the 3 Waters assets in Auckland into a separate entity which owns, funds and manages this infrastructure. This was imposed upon Auckland by effective Government decree, and was originally intended to be a path to privatisation, which did not occur.

The key issue with 3 Waters is that no territorial or regional council in NZ has moved of its own accord to better service or delivery models; not even in Auckland was there any move locally to create the Watercare system. The reverse in fact has been true; water supply and drainage boards in places like Auckland and Christchurch, where separately constituted and elected, were subsumed into bigger general purpose entities, like the Auckland Regional Council and the Christchurch City Council. Therefore it is very easy to show that local politicians who are lobbying against 3 Waters reforms do not have the ability to see past their own political interests in wanting to build bigger empires with less accountability. Wellington Water is an interesting recent development in the central region where several councils have joined together to amalgamate their network management functions, but this is really just the same existing model of council asset management by a different name, in that it merely represents the merging of the existing management functions of these councils into one entity, and does not change the way the assets are funded or owned, both of which remain under political control around council tables. What C4LD is proposing amounts to a reactionary pushback against their incumbent opposition to losing control of some of their functions, and most importantly, the significant amount of assets involved, rather than being meritorious in its own right. The problem with the position being taken by local politicians like Garry Moore and C4LD supporting mayors is that they are effectively advocating that there is nothing wrong with the existing management of 3 Waters by local government and therefore nothing needs to change. But overwhelmingly apparent regardless of political stripe is the essential belief by these politicians that they and their councils can do no wrong, especially for Labour party types. Moore is essentially defending no particular principle other than the dominant power structures in local government, which are almost all subservient to those residents with the most wealth or income. That is not democratic and it is painful to see the craven obeisance to it by people that claim to be part of a long and proud democratic tradition in the political entities they belong to.