Graham Adams: Three Waters: A sorry tale of government deception and media inertia

Graham Adams: Three Waters: A sorry tale of government deception and media inertia

Nanaia Mahuta’s plans to reshape water infrastructure have been so poorly scrutinised that voters still don’t know whether iwi will receive royalties — despite the legislation being scheduled for next month. Graham Adams reports.


Anyone who has travelled around New Zealand over the summer break will likely have seen signs saying “Stop Three Waters!” on fences along highways and rural roads.

It’s also likely that at least a third of those travellers who noticed the signs will have little — or no — idea of what Three Waters will mean in practice.

That was the dismal information offered by the latest 1News Kantar Public Poll. And, unfortunately, 1News’ coverage of its own poll gave some clue why such ignorance is widespread, even as the issue divides councils — and a big chunk of voters — throughout the country.

In fact, the state broadcaster offered such brief and garbled analysis of the questions it had commissioned on Three Waters it was difficult to understand why it had bothered taking the nation’s pulse on the topic in the first place.

Its once-over-lightly segment certainly helped explain why 35 per cent of those polled had either not heard of Three Waters (13 per cent) or didn’t know enough about it have an opinion (22 per cent).

We did learn that only 26 per cent of those polled were in favour, while 40 per cent were opposed — but learned very little else.

TVNZ’s report by its deputy political editor, Maiki Sherman, is not an unusual example of how mainstream media has failed to comprehensively explain this subject to its audience. In particular, journalists have largely avoided covering the more contentious aspects of the plan to confiscate water assets from the nation’s 67 councils and divide them into four vast regions — including the provision for iwi to be given equal say with councils over appointing professionals to manage storm water, waste water and drinking water.

As a result, Auckland mayor Phil Goff’s comment to Sherman — “I think [what] Auckland would want is, obviously, being the majority provider of the new entity’s assets, to continue to have a majority say” — would have been indecipherable to most of TVNZ’s audience.

Goff was referring, of course, to the fact that iwi will be given an equal say with councils, and therefore Auckland — which will provide 93 per cent of the water assets in Water Services Entity A — will be reduced to a minority voice in deciding how those assets are used.

The provision for an equal role for iwi is the most inflammatory in the debate. In the case of the South Island, it means the government handing 50 per cent oversight of ratepayers’ assets to the wealthy Ngai Tahu iwi.

Despite representing the interests of fewer than 100,000 Maori, unelected Ngai Tahu members will have exactly the same say as representatives of the 20 councils that fall within Entity D. The boundaries of the entity are aligned with Ngai Tahu territory covering most of the South Island (minus Nelson and Marlborough) and will include a “connected” population of around 864,000 (including Maori).

Possibly because mainstream journalists appear not to want to draw attention to the role of iwi in the reforms, TVNZ’s report also didn’t mention the poll’s finding that a whopping 46 per cent of Maori were undecided on the issue.

Delving into that figure might, of course, expose just how many iwi fear being dominated by larger historical rivals under the new setup. The vast majority of journalists simply don’t want to explore the possibility that Three Waters is also highly contentious within Maoridom.

Just as inconvenient is the fact only 40 per cent of Labour voters support the changes. This would have made it clear that the unpopularity of Three Waters extends across party lines, but that wasn’t mentioned either

Instead, we were treated to a brief clip of Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta asserting: “There is resistance within parts of the local government community who do not want change and I don’t accept that.”

Say what? At last count, 60 of 67 councils were highly critical or opposed and the backlash has been so intense that the legislation due before Christmas is now scheduled for late March. That is not exactly “resistance within parts of the local government community”

The report later returned to Mahuta to ask whether her government had failed to sell the reforms well enough.

Mahuta: “I don’t agree. There are pockets of New Zealand — and certainly within certain councils — that don’t want any type of change.”

You’d have to say those are very large “pockets” given 40 per cent of those polled oppose the reforms.

Yet, Sherman, who fronted the two-minute segment, didn’t bother to quiz the minister on her minimising the extent of the opposition as “pockets” — or, if she had, the footage didn’t make the final cut for the news bulletin.

It seems extraordinary that such a deeply unpopular policy is treated so superficially — and in such piecemeal fashion — by the mainstream media. And if it weren’t for the Taxpayers’ Union, even more of the population would undoubtedly be in the dark about the proposed grand reshuffle of water assets.

The more than 150 signs throughout the country urging the public to “Stop Three Waters!” have been organised by the union, which has been the most prominent critic of the Three Waters legislation, apart from councils themselves.

Its executive director, Jordan Williams, has also been Mahuta’s most tenacious interviewer (despite the fact he is not a trained journalist). It’s true to say he didn’t receive satisfactory answers to almost any of the questions he put to her last November — including why co-governance with iwi is required to improve the nation’s water systems — but the very fact Mahuta went off on bizarre tangents in response to his questions spoke volumes.

Perhaps the most significant question Williams asked was: “Can you absolutely assure us — or will you be putting into legislation — restrictions on paying iwi groups water royalties?”

Mahuta’s long reply was accurately summed up as: “We have to prevent privatisation. Iwi cannot sell the assets. Iwi care about the long term.

The only conclusion to be drawn from Mahuta’s evasiveness is that under the new legislation iwi will indeed receive royalties (which are, of course, an attribute of ownership that will be denied to everyone else).

It is scandalous that journalists have still not extracted a satisfactory answer from Ardern or Mahuta about royalties — especially when the legislation is due to be introduced to Parliament next month.

In fact, the entire process of trying to foist Three Waters on the nation has been scandalous — beginning with the $3.5 million ad campaign launched in June that featured cartoons of people and animals unhappy with poor-quality water. The campaign sparked an uproar from councils, and it had to be retired after the Public Service Commission expressed concern the ads were “straying into advocating government policy rather than explaining policy’”.

In December came the shocking revelation that Cabinet had decided in July that the process would be mandatory. Yet Ardern and Mahuta had both continued to pretend for several months after the Cabinet meeting that councils were being genuinely consulted about whether they wanted to opt in or out.

Outrageously, both the Prime Minister and her Minister of Local Government denied they had misled the public over the matter.

Of course, it is possible to mislead people either by commission (ie directly lying) or by omission (ie failing to answer direct questions).

Mahuta has never answered questions about the likelihood of royalties being paid to iwi — which may, of course, result in higher water bills for all New Zealanders — and for months she deflected questions about the reforms being made mandatory. Ardern has similarly evaded direct questions.

When she was asked on rural radio show The Country on September 29 by host Jamie Mackay whether Three Waters was a fait accompli, the Prime Minister quickly skated away from the question.

Mackay: “Three Waters… is this a done deal, because I note jobs are already being advertised?”

In an obvious attempt to avoid answering, Ardern replied: “Look, the councils are responsible for their own employment and matters in that regard.”

In fact, the Prime Minister had known it was already a “done deal” more than three months before that radio interview.

When Judith Collins, as Leader of the Opposition, asked her in Parliament on 19 October last year: “Has Cabinet considered any proposals to make the Three Waters reforms compulsory?”, the Prime Minister did not deny it, but did not answer the question either.

Ardern replied: “Of course, Cabinet discussions remain in Cabinet until such a time as those decisions are publicly released” — before she went off on a tangent about the government feeling “very strongly about the fact that the status quo is not an option”.

When Collins pressed Ardern further in a follow-up question: “Will she rule out her government mandating the Three Waters reforms on all councils, thereby forcibly seizing ratepayer water assets?”, Ardern said, “I totally reject the premise of that question.”

Ardern similarly stonewalled a third question by Collins about the government “forcibly seizing council water assets”.

In an effort to soothe councils’ and voters’ anger, Mahuta has said she will work with selected representatives from iwi/Māori and councils for further feedback on the governance and accountability arrangements for Three Waters, with a deadline of February 28.

Why anyone, however, would trust the Local Government Minister or the Prime Minister to deal with them in good faith after their sustained deception about mandating Three Waters remains a mystery.


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.