GUEST BLOG: Niki Gladding – Prime Minister Ardern on 3 Waters – misleading or mis-led?

The Prime Minister’s performance on Q+A this morning (Sunday 31 July) must have had her comms people on the edge of their seats, nails in teeth, waiting for the worst.  What makes her gaffes so concerning is that she didn’t know she made them.  Unfortunately, neither did her interviewer.

Jack asked about co-governance of the 3 Waters Entities via the Regional Representation Group (RRG).  He asked whether, if democracy is ‘one person one vote’, the governance structure of the RRG is democratic, and do Pakeha (and other New Zealanders) have the same representation as Maori?

The question was both simple and complex, with a potentially divisive answer.  The simple answer should have been ‘no’; whether that matters or not is another question.  But, as most politicians will do when faced with having to give an answer that will make the 6 o’clock news (and not in a good way), she deflected…

It was a response that should have opened up a can of worms for the PM because it calls into question her understanding of what is probably the most impactful and nation-defining Bill this government will ever consider.

She essentially said that the governance arrangement wasn’t as significant as Jack was suggesting because (and here’s the gaffe) the power still sits with the owners, with the Councils.  To be exact she said:

  • “The ownership rights continue to sit with local government and those local councils”
  • “The ownership sits with local people”
  • “For most people power sits with ownership and ownership sits with local government”

At this point, Mayors and councillors and other informed citizens across the country were spraying their morning cuppas across their living rooms.

By now, the PM should have read both the Bill and key submissions from local government.  She should know that existing ownership rights will not (as she said) “continue to sit with local government”.  At this point the Bill confers only one power to council ‘shares’ – that is the limited potential to avert complete privatisation, via a vote.  Councils’ ability to give any other direction is removed by the Bill. And there are no ownership responsibilities at all – they can’t even choose to bail out the Entities to protect their assets.

As for the ownership sitting with local people, the Bill provides no democratic link between local people or local councils and the RRG.

There will be vigorous agreement that ownership should come with power.  But that’s the point – in this case, it doesn’t.   And the PM should be acknowledging that.

She then comforted the nation by assuring us that the RRG will set the Statement of Intent (SOI).  Wrong again – the unelected Entity Boards will write the SOIs and the Bill gives the RRGs no power to change them.

Jack missed both key errors and kept pressing for an answer to his original question, missing a moment of journalistic triumph.

At best, this shows that the PM does not understand the fundamentals, let alone the details, of the draft legislation.  At worst, we are being deliberately misled.  I prefer the former because I see it in local government too: governance being overwhelmed with all the change and all the information that comes with it, and a consequential reliance on carefully managed briefings.  It’s a scenario that undermines our democracy, decision by decision and that is being enabled by this Government’s huge and patronising centralisation agenda.

This 3 Waters governance model originated under a National Government.  Infrastructure NZ leapt into action after the Havelock North contamination event – they organised a delegation to Scotland and essentially ‘sold’ aggregation to the DIA and Treasury.  The missing ingredient at that point was co-governance, which was then handed to the Labour Government in the same way you might give a lollipop to child if you have important work you need to do and you don’t want them to get in the way.  A nice, sweet, pacifying distraction.

It’s now time for the pollies to come down off the sugar rush and do the hard work before it’s too late.  Actually read the Bill, understand the Bill, consider submissions, and then front the public with the unembellished truth:  there is no council ownership; there is no meaningful governance (for Maori or anyone else); there are loopholes allowing asset sales, provisions enabling 35-year ‘joint arrangements’ with foreign corporates; and significant risk of privatisation.

This is industry-driven reform that will benefit industry.  It’s an indictment of governance and our media that, instead of talking about that, we are still broadcasting misleading statements and publicly squabbling about co-governance.

Niki Gladding is a Queenstown Lakes District councillor, sitting on QLDC’s Infrastructure Committee and Climate Reference Group.  Niki co-founded Aotearoa Water Action in 2018 and has spent the last five years challenging consents granted to 2 foreign water-bottlers.  She supports mana whenua partnering with councils to govern three waters assets.”

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