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John MacDonald: It's not April 1; National did actually release a policy

John MacDonald,
Publish Date
Mon, 27 Feb 2023, 1:54PM
(Photo / File)
(Photo / File)

John MacDonald: It's not April 1; National did actually release a policy

John MacDonald,
Publish Date
Mon, 27 Feb 2023, 1:54PM

At one point during the weekend, I was speechless. Because I couldn’t believe it. The National Party was actually announcing a policy.

It was a bit light on detail, so maybe it was more a statement of intent. But let's call it a policy.

And it was all to do with 3 Waters. Which has been a real political hot potato - possibly the hottest political hot potato we’ve had since the seabed and foreshore legislation debate nearly 20 years ago. 

As you’ll know, after the situation in Havelock North a few years back when the water supply system failed and a whole lot of people got crook and a small number died, the-powers-that-be have been trying to work out what to do to avoid something like that happening again.

Generally, there’s been agreement that the quality of our water systems up and down the country is variable - and there’s been a lot of talk about what to do about it.

Enter the Labour government, which came up with its 3 Waters legislation. Which, I think it’s fair to say, has been based on the assumption —rightly or wrongly— that all councils are doing a hopeless job of running their water systems and the government could do a better job.

So we’re talking drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater. The 3 waters.

And like it’s done with the health system and the polytech system, Labour wants to centralise control of water infrastructure by taking responsibility for all things water away from councils and putting it in the hands of new water authorities.

There would be four of them. With one responsible for pretty much most of the South Island. The areas that are Ngāi Tahu would be covered by this one water authority. The Ngāi Tahu boundary being relevant because, under Labour’s plan, the water authority would be co-governed by council representatives and iwi.

And there’s been a lot of noise about the co-governance part - mostly because it seems no one actually understands what that means. A few weeks back when I spoke with Te Maire Tau from Ngāi Tahu, he struggled to explain co-governance.

And then half an hour later I spoke to National’s Christopher Luxon, and he couldn’t really explain it either. But somehow it’s become the big bogeyman.

And some politicians have been more than willing to tell us we should be scared of it but when you ask most of them what it is, they struggle to explain it. But don’t let that get in the way - just be scared of it.

Well, I’m yet to be scared.

But back to National’s 3 Waters policy announced at the weekend. Essentially, it answers the question we’ve been asking for a while now - which is, when National says it will repeal and replace the 3 Waters legislation if it forms the next government, what will it replace it with?

And we now know, that it will replace Labour’s idea of a complete takeover with a big stick approach.

Essentially, National is saying that instead of taking assets off councils and running water services centrally, it would let councils hold on to the assets but it would tell councils what needs doing and what they need to invest to keep their water infrastructure up-to-scratch.

And it would require councils to ringfence money specifically for spending on water infrastructure and services. If they didn’t do that, they’d get the big stick.

National says councils would be free to charge for water whatever way they see fit.

The council would just have to spend any revenue it gets on water services and nothing else.

National says because of this ringfencing, councils could then borrow money for water infrastructure and services.

As far as I’m concerned, National has failed to deliver a credible alternative to Labour’s 3 Waters policy.

Yes, it delivers on National’s promise to keep water in local ownership and control. But I think it’s an approach that might’ve sounded credible a few months ago - but not after the disastrous flooding issues we’ve seen over the last few weeks.

Which has had me looking at the whole 3 Waters thing in a different light. The main thing for me about Labour’s plan has been this seizing of council assets and paying a peppercorn price in exchange.

In Christchurch, the Government is offering $120 million for $8 billion of water infrastructure assets. So I’ve thought all along that that part of it is nutbar.

But if National thinks it’s a much better idea to let councils hold on to their water assets and tell them what to do with them, and let them charge for water free range and get themselves into huge debt to pay for what the Government is telling them to do - then that’s a fail as far as I’m concerned.

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