First, it fails to satisfy even the most basic democratic test. A system in which the nation’s water infrastructure is run by opaque “entities” where 16 percent of the population wields 50 percent of the power (and that’s assuming the representatives of the iwi elite truly speak for all people of Maori descent, which is far from assured) makes a mockery of representative government.
Second, and in addition to the above, it severs the links by which the public is able to exercise control over infrastructure that it owns. The recent attempt to overcome opposition to Three Waters by tweaking the shareholding arrangements, so as to create an illusion of financial control by councils, was a feat of prestidigitation that fooled no one.
A cynic might say such arrogance should be no surprise coming from a minister who enjoys quasi-regal standing within the Tainui confederation and is thus steeped in a hierarchical tribal culture that dates back to the Maori King Movement. While her manner is quiet and understated, it’s possible she’s a woman who’s accustomed to getting her own way by virtue of her hereditary status. (Just a personal theory …)
Against all that, we have a vague promise that the country’s water infrastructure will be better funded and more efficiently managed under the new mechanisms. But while even critics of Three Waters acknowledge there’s scope for improvement, the failings of the existing arrangements – and especially the supposed health risks from poor water – have been grossly overstated in an attempt to frighten the public, with assistance from a crude TV propaganda campaign that would have embarrassed even Joseph Goebbels.
So much for the constitutional flaws (for want of a better term) in the Three Waters project. But on top of that, and just as glaring, are the potential bureaucratic and administrative fishhooks.
Today’s Wairarapa Times-Age reports concern within local councils – or should I say panic? – over the cost of the transition to the new structure. Carterton District Council, one of the smallest in the country (population 9700), expects to spend $850,000 preparing for Three Waters over the next two years. The council’s chief executive says the plan has imposed an “enormous” programme of work that the council’s not resourced to cope with it. Mayor Greg Laing describes the process as “absolutely appalling”.
The Times-Age quotes the Department of Internal Affairs as saying funding will be provided to cover transition costs, but it’s obvious that councils haven’t seen any of the money and don’t know when they will. In any case, South Wairarapa’s mayor Alex Beijen, who presides over a district with a population of only 11,000 (and one that’s already financially stretched to breaking point), says resourcing will be a big challenge even with extra government money.
Reading between the lines, it seems clear the process has been so rushed that no one thought to put transitional funding arrangements in place – or alternatively, didn’t have the time. Could this urgency have anything to do with the fact that there’s an election next year and Labour is anxious to lock in its audacious ideological projects before it gets booted out of office, as seems more likely with every passing day?
Similar unseemly haste is evident in health, where the consequences, at least on a personal level, could be even more catastrophic. In a scathing assessment, Ian Powell – former executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists – points to the massive disruption and destabilisation likely to be caused by Health Minister Andrew Little’s madcap scheme to abolish district health boards and replace them with … what, exactly?
If anyone knows, we haven’t been told. That's exactly Powell's point. But in the meantime, God alone knows how much money, energy and expertise will be diverted from the provision of health care – to the detriment of sick people desperately in need of treatment – as the health system struggles to restructure itself to comply with Little’s ill-defined vision.
As Powell points out, “With only 40 working days to go, DHBs have no more information on what will replace them on 1 July than they had on 21 April last year when the health minister announced their abolition.” You can read his damning appraisal here – and if that’s not depressing enough, Richard Prebble has more to say here.
All this has a wearying familiarity. Labour governments tend to come into office bursting with grand ideas but lacking the ministerial talent necessary to convert their missionary zeal into effective action. Their ambitions consistently outstrip their ability to deliver, resulting in reliance on obscurantist jargon and slogans (Powell cites the empty vow to end the “postcode lottery” in health care) and promiscuous spending binges as a substitute for good policy. Little, who should have been one of Labour’s more competent ministers, has turned out to be anything but.
When it’s plain to everyone except fervent true believers that the wheels are falling off, Labour collectively squeezes its eyes shut, crosses its fingers and hopes everything will magically turn out okay. That’s what Mahuta and Little appear to be doing now, metaphorically speaking, and by the time voters are able to do anything it will be too late. The damage will have been done.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.