Three Waters could be one of the Ardern government’s biggest acts. (Ranjith Siji/Flickr)
Three Waters could be one of the Ardern government’s biggest acts. (Ranjith Siji/Flickr)

The BulletinOctober 28, 2021

Why everybody hates Three Waters

Three Waters could be one of the Ardern government’s biggest acts. (Ranjith Siji/Flickr)
Three Waters could be one of the Ardern government’s biggest acts. (Ranjith Siji/Flickr)

The government is moving forward with its programme to take over the country’s water assets amid howls of protest, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

Three Waters, four entities and a political hornets’ nest. The government’s decision to push ahead with its Three Waters programme and take control of the country’s water assets despite widespread opposition has left councils fuming. Even in parliament, Labour now faces a wall of resistance to its proposal. The Green Party, which has told Labour to hit pause on its plans, has warned in the NZ Herald that the government could face a “reverse Goldilocks situation” where no one is satisfied. Nanaia Mahuta, the local government minister, said yesterday that she was left with no choice after councils underinvested in the country’s drinking, sewage and stormwater systems.

This could be one of the Ardern government’s most memorable efforts. Clean drinking water is at the core of what a government does. People expect to turn on a tap or flush a toilet and not have to think about it. The Beehive now plans to wrest day-to-day control of 67 council-owned water systems and turn them over to four new publicly-owned water entities by 2024. Mahuta said she expects the country’s water infrastructure will require $185 billion of upgrades over the next three decades. Her comments were featured in The Spinoff’s live updates yesterday and she spoke in stark terms, telling councils that they were sitting on “literally crumbling” systems that many of them can’t afford to repair.

Unhappy and feeling unheard, councils say the minister is wrong. In response to widespread anger, the government has set up a working group with local councils, rural and iwi representatives. It’ll have seven weeks to report back before the first bill is tabled. It’s not being seen as a concession. In the Nelson Mail, local councillors said the government’s decision is “unfathomable”, “undemocratic” and that locals have been “hoodwinked” by a consultation that was a “charade.” They also insist their assets are well-maintained and well-funded. In the Timaru Herald, three unhappy mayors said the government was “confiscating” one of their biggest assets despite clear opposition. In The Press, a Christchurch councillor called the government a “revolting pack of thieving liars”. The indiscreet language, from so many elected representatives across the country, is unusual.

First you ask nicely, and when that doesn’t work… Three Waters was supposed to be voluntary, but as detailed in previous editions of The Bulletin, the entire process started poorly, and through a mixture of real grievances and some misinformation, the tide quickly turned against it. Thomas Coughlan, in the NZ Herald (premium), unpacked some of the finer details about how the government will flip $35 billion worth of pipes and treatment facilities. It’s a complicated plan that involves giving councils shared ownership of the assets, without any control over them or how they are funded. An American credit rating agency was brought in to help with the design of the programme, which won’t lessen fears that the big new public entities could be privatised by a future government.


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Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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