In recent weeks, councils throughout New Zealand have pushed back at the government’s Three Waters proposal. Why?
I have been surprised at some of the reasons given, however not all have revealed the full extent of their opposition to this proposal. Only Westland mayor Bruce Smith has listed the many issues what is at stake (refer my article – The Three Waters Proposal), what the government might do if councils do not agree, and the implications for democracy.
I will review here what other councils have said. The strongest objection to date has come from the Whangarei councillors who voted unanimously to provisionally opt out of the proposal. Not only has the government held back data about the water reforms and are not meeting “good faith obligations”, Whangarei council sighted the recent cancellation of the four-lane highway between Marsden Point and Whangarei as an example of this government “walking back” on its promises (RNZ, 29 June 2021).
Councillor Vince Cocurullo was disappointed that the government thinks councils will do what the government wants. Councillor Simon Reid, of Northland iwi Ngapuhi, went further in saying, “the government has – over the last 18 months or so – proven to be so unreliable and untrustworthy” (RNZ, 29 June 2021). Councillor Phil Halse complained that the government has refused to provide answers to their questions. “I think this is the most alarming thing that I have seen since I’ve been a councillor… it’s a pretty sad indictment on how we are running the country at the moment” (RNZ, 29 June 2021).
Whangarei mayor Sheryl Mai stated that “in the absence of information that shows our ratepayers will be better off by opting in then I do believe that opting out is the correct course” (RNZ 29 June 2021). Further, she is confident the council can continue providing quality water services without opting for government intervention, as the council has spent millions of dollars over the years in providing a quality service and infrastructure to its ratepayers.
The largest hurdle to the proposal is potentially Auckland. It has the largest water system in New Zealand (approximately 92%). Auckland mayor Phil Goff has added to Sheryl Mai’s comments stating, “we already have the professionalism and economy of scale that the government is talking about – they acknowledge that themselves and the Water Industry Commission of Scotland that’s done the background work on this acknowledges that – Auckland is streets ahead” (RNZ, 2 July 2021).
Auckland will invest $11b in water infrastructure over the next ten years. However, they will lose control and there will be no responsiveness or accountability under the proposal. Auckland owns 92% of the assets in the proposed amalgamation but will have less than 40% of any indirect representation (RNZ, 2 July 2021). This is hardly fair.
Mayors from the far north to the South Island have raised concerns on the proposal. As Jonathan Milne (Newsroom Pro) said, while some councils are on board, others are not. “You’ve got mayors like Phil Goff in Auckland and Sheryl Mai in Whangarei and Nigel Owens in Timaru who say, ‘my waters ok, when I was sworn in my oath of office as a mayor, I was to serve first and foremost my ratepayers, so if we’re going to change this you need to show me that the ratepayers are going to benefit significantly’” (RNZ, 3 August 2021).
The Far North District Council (FNDC) has rejected the proposal, with the council voting to provisionally opt out. Mayor John Cater called the proposal a dog’s breakfast and said they have several concerns on unclarified restructuring costs and the fear ratepayers would have massive water bills in the future (RNZ, 15 August 2021). Carter, also a Local Government NZ board member, said several councils have approached him with concerns. This is a loss scenario for the FNDC, as it is with the Auckland and Whangarei councils. The government proposes to give FNDC $48m, yet they have spent more than $300m of intergenerational ratepayer funded water infrastructure. As Bruce Smith noted, councils would be giving away infrastructure at below value. This is more like a fire sale to a dubious and untrustworthy government. Kerikeri councillor David Clendon labelled the new system as undemocratic, as local government control would be lost (RNZ, 15 August 2021).
Surprisingly, Wellington City Council voted 9-7 to investigate if a local referendum could be held on whether to join the proposal (Dominion Post, 12 August 2021). I am surprised by this as the council is primarily left leaning, and I would have expected the vote to be the other way round. Thankfully, most councillors saw otherwise and recognised their responsibilities under the Local Body Act (as highlighted by Bruce Smith).
Former Christchurch mayor Garry Moore warns the proposal will be detrimental to Christchurch. The Christchurch City Council (CCC) currently has $6.9b of water assets and $1.1b of debt (Star News, 13 August 2021). Under the proposal, CCC will receive “$122m as a sweetener, but we’ll have very little say,” Moore said (Star News, 13 August 2021). He added “this is theft by central government.”
Naturally, National has raised concerns that if councils do not come on board, the government will make it mandatory. This has been raised by both National’s Christopher Luxon and Green party co-leader James Shaw. As Luxon said “more councils pulling out could prompt the minister to take a harder line and force councils to join” (RNZ, 2 July 2021). He adds, the minister will simply mandate it and make it compulsory. The reason for his statement is that on the one hand the minister has said opting in would be voluntary, but on the other hand, the minister has repeatedly refused to rule out making it mandatory. Thus, this government is prepared to ignore the democratic process and rights of councils, and overrule them by forcing them to join. The government knows that Three Waters is fundamentally flawed and not in the best interest of councils financially or for control. It is a fire sale and a land grab on both counts.
As Judith Collins said, the new funding was a taxpayer bribe and an attempt to save reforms that were failing. “First the government tried to scare ratepayers by going behind councils’ backs with a taxpayer funded propaganda ad campaign. Secondly, as that didn’t work, the government has now turned to old school bribery tactics” (RNZ, 15 July 2021). Further, she adds, “these reforms are poorly conceived and will result in low accountability, bloated service entities, more bureaucracy, and messy cross-subsidising between neighbouring regions. The claimed scale benefits and cost savings remain unconvincing” (RNZ, 15 July 2021).
In summary, both large and smaller councils have raised many objections and concerns, and have provisionally opted out of the Three Waters. Further, the government is limiting councils’ abilities to hold public referendums, when they are required to under the Local Body Act, when large local assets are to be sold or bought. Thus, this government may override the democratic process of councils by mandating Three Waters to achieve their own dubious ends.