Published in The Australian (Sydney), 9 June 2022
Visitors to New Zealand would have heard of the “land of the long white cloud”. But as they drive around its two large main islands, they will soon think of it as the land of the three waters. And they will wonder what that means.
These days, New Zealand’s rural highways are lined with “Stop! 3 Waters” signs. There must now be more of them than the ubiquitous nannying posters (“Take a break!”, “Arrive refreshed”, “Speed kills!”) Kiwis have become used to.
As it turns out, the three waters are not Lake Wakatipu, the Whanganui River and the Tasman Sea. No, they refer to drinking water, wastewater, and storm water. Unsuspecting visitors still might not realise why anyone would want to stop them.
So here is an explanation. As in many other countries, water infrastructure in New Zealand is owned and managed by local councils. The Ardern Government wants to change that. And this is where matters get complicated.
Wellington does not want to take full control of water, though. Instead, it wants to transfer water assets to four regional bodies. Nominally, councils would remain the owners of the waterworks and pipes. Practically, however, they would have no say over their management.
To camouflage this, councils will join with local Māori communities. Together, they will appoint a regional body which will appoint a selection panel which will appoint the water entity board.
Confused? Well, it might all be due to a clumsy attempt to separate the balance sheets of water entities from councils. Alternatively, it may be so the many layers obscure the fact that the assets New Zealand ratepayers have financed will be handed over to a new bureaucracy whose governance will be 50 per cent Māori.
This latter fact explains the countrywide protests. Otherwise, they make little sense.
Councils don’t have a special place in New Zealanders’ hearts – quite the opposite is true. Councils are often considered inefficient, bureaucratic, and generally useless. That may not be fair, but such are perceptions.
Therefore, it is hard to understand why Kiwis would be so upset with one level of government (Wellington) taking assets from another, even less popular level of government (councils).
The public outrage makes sense when viewed through the prism of race relations because this whole conflict is not primarily about infrastructure management, infrastructure financing or inter-government relations.
The Government purports that its water reforms will create efficiencies, economies of scale and safer drinking water standards. Whether the proposed reorganisation can achieve any of that is debatable. At least it is not immediately obvious how the proposed structure is supposed to save money and create more jobs in water management.
But none of the Government’s economic goals justify handing over 50 per cent of the top governance influence to the leaders of local Māori tribes. Yes, the Treaty of Waitangi guarantees Māori the “full exclusive and undisturbed possession of their Lands,” including water. Still, that does not explain why council-financed pipes and drains suddenly become a 50:50 joint property.
However, for those protesting Three Waters, the issue may not be solely about water either.
Over the past five years, the Ardern Government has taken a novel approach to race relations. In numerous ways, Māori have been given greater recognition and prominence.
At a superficial level, this shows in the renaming of government institutions like Waka Kotahi, previously only known as the New Zealand Transport Agency. It is visible in government documents now written in a language incorporating many concepts and terms derived from Te Reo Māori (the Māori language). The new approach is also present in the new curriculum, which stresses the importance of the Māori knowledge system.
Not everyone in New Zealand is happy about these developments – and it is not just non-Māori Kiwis fearing that they may create new divisions instead of healing old ones.
Still, despite much grumbling in private, there is little public protest. To oppose the new ethnically motivated policies might expose one to accusations of racism.
This is where Three Waters comes into play. It is a government policy notionally aimed at improving water management. Its ethnic component, though present, sits in the background. And that makes it safe to radically oppose it without being explicit about one’s potential disquiet regarding the government’s wider Māori co-governance agenda.
In that sense, it is a double dog-whistle. It is a government delivering one agenda (co-governance) under the pretence of another (water management). And it is the government’s opponents rejecting the hidden agenda (ethnic segregation) while attacking the visible one (seizing council assets).
New Zealanders may not be the most forthright people when it comes to saying what they really think. But in the Three Waters debate, this ‘Yeah, nah’ culture is reaching new heights.
Three Waters is about everything. It is about the government’s new race-relations agenda. It is about the Ardern Government’s direction for the country. It is about the divide between Wellington and the regions.
And yes, it may even be a little about water. But not for everyone.