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Honestly, I did not expect Nanaia Mahuta to pull the trigger.
Opposition to the Three Waters reforms has exploded in the last few months. That bit isn’t a major surprise. Anything that involves the future of water assets and the belief in some circles that Māori are getting a special deal is always going to stir people up. Upon reflection, the Government’s multimillion-dollar TV advertising campaign might have done more to galvanise opposition than to offset it.
Facing widespread scorn and criticism, and pushback from mayors around Aotearoa (including those of Christchurch and Auckland, who just happen to be former Labour Ministers), I thought it most likely Nanaia Mahuta would gently back down from pursuing her agenda.
But she didn’t. The Minister is planning to mandate.
Can you think of any other time in the last four years that Jacinda Ardern’s Government has forged ahead with such an unpopular policy?
At the end of the last term, the Government was criticised by its supporters as not having pursued a bold agenda. The Prime Minister talked a big game but wasn’t prepared to spend political capital. Polling ruled the policy.
Three Waters is different. It’s one of several big reforms the Government’s handling at once and it’s comfortably the least popular. The plan to shift the management of water out of the hands of local councils will fundamentally alter the future management of our most precious resource.
You can hate the policy all you like but you can’t say it isn’t bold.
I’m open-minded about what ownership and governance structures will ultimately solve our water infrastructure problems. I can see some merit with Three Waters. I can see some potential issues. I’m yet to see detail behind credible alternatives.
Above all though, I think much of the public debate so far has minimised the scale of the crisis. We have pipes bursting and sewage in the streets of our capital city. Every time there’s a storm in Auckland, beaches in the city’s fanciest suburbs are contaminated with sewage overflow. In Havelock North people died!
And this is risky, but for all of those who say the Three Waters reforms are anti-democratic, it’s worth remembering it’s democracy that got us in this pickle in the first place. We elect our councils. For decades, many councils around New Zealand haven’t properly invested in water infrastructure because voters whinge and moan over the subsequent rates increases, even as homeowners watch their properties balloon in value.
Do we elect politicians to make bold, difficult decisions? Or do we want them to be dictated to by the short-term whim of the polls?
You don’t have to support Three Waters, but you can’t argue New Zealand doesn’t face a looming crisis. And if our leaders aren’t prepared to make some tough calls, one way or the other, soon enough we’ll all be in the shit.
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