It is not a frivolous question, as anyone who can remember the events of 2002 will attest. That year, work on the Waikato expressway, near Meremere, was halted and plans modified after Ngati Naho hapū claimed it was traversing the territory of a one-eyed taniwha, Karu Tahi.
An integral part of matauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), taniwha are mythical creatures said to live in or near lakes, rivers and the sea.
It appears that the Te Mana o te Wai statements, enabled by clauses buried in the bowels of the Water Services Entities Bill, do allow a possible role for taniwha in formulating water management policy.
The statements are effectively edicts that the nation’s more than 1200 iwi and hapū can issue at will. The Water Services Entity in their region, which controls the day-to-day management of water assets, must obey them.
In fact, anything an iwi or hapū decides is consistent with their view of matauranga Māori or tikanga (customs) qualifies as a basis for making a binding order concerning a freshwater body in their territory.
Last week in Parliament, Act MP Simon Court put the question to the Minister of Local Government, Nanaia Mahuta: “Are spiritual beliefs, such as the existence of a taniwha on a bend in the river, permissible subject matter for Te Mana o te Wai statements, and, if so, why should taxpayer-funded entities be required to give effect to spiritual beliefs?”
Mahuta didn’t deny that possibility. Instead, she said Court had “sadly” mischaracterised “the intent of Te Mana o te Wai statements, which are intended to be practical applications for the way in which we can look after the intergenerational obligations towards our most precious resource, which is water”.
Unfortunately, Mahuta is being economical with the truth in implying that the Te Mana o Te Wai statements will be resolutely focused on “practical applications”.
Indeed, she gave the game away herself in Parliament on August 23, when she responded to Court’s description of Te Mana o te Wai.
He said it was “a concept that puts water as a spiritual entity — the value of water — above the needs of people and communities. That’s what it says if you go onto the Internal Affairs website and look up Te Mana o te Wai — water is a spiritual concept that is more important than the people and communities that it serves.
“I know, it’s amazing — 2022… hundreds of years since the scientific Enlightenment enabled us to grasp concepts such as the Earth going around the sun… and yet this is the spiritual nonsense which is being forced on New Zealanders and councils and communities rather than the obvious problems to solve, which is to fix water pipes, pump stations, and waste-water treatment plants.”In response, Mahuta tacitly admitted to the spiritual dimension of the concept at the heart of Three Waters: “There is some perception that has been promoted by the member that Te Mana o te Wai is just a spiritual aspiration [my emphasis]…”
Court, of course, is very aware of the indivisible interlocking of the practical and spiritual that informs the Māori view of water, but it suits Mahuta to emphasise the former and downplay the latter.
However, in August, the Māori King, Kiingi Tuheitia, did not hold back in making clear how important spiritual considerations are for Te Mana o te Wai, saying at the 16th anniversary celebrations of his coronation in Ngaruawahia:
“Te Mana o Te Wai belongs to us, to our iwi. It is about our relationship to our taonga [treasures] and about the wairua [spirit] of our water.”
Mahuta, of course, could have rejected Court’s question about taniwha being a “permissible subject matter for Te Mana o te Wai statements” but, tellingly, she didn’t.
In short, taniwha may well rear their heads in influencing water policy once the Water Services Entities Bill becomes law and iwi and hapū issue Te Mana o te Wai statements.
Non-Māori, who make up 84 per cent of the nation’s population, are denied the right to issue such edicts — no matter what their own views may be on water management, or indeed the spiritual beliefs they may hold about it.
Simon Court is certainly zeroing in with a laser focus on the significance of the Te Mana o Te Wai statements — which is more than can be said for most of our mainstream journalists. They appear unable — or unwilling — to see beyond the provisions for co-governance at the over-arching strategic level of the four Regional Representative Groups.
It is now widely understood that “co-governance” means equal numbers of representatives from mana whenua and councils forming the groups which will oversee the Three Waters set-up in each of the four vast regions the country’s water assets are being divided into.
However, journalists continue to ignore the massive power handed to iwi below this level — largely through Te Mana o te Wai statements. As a result, they can happily dismiss co-governance as an “inconsequential sideshow” (Bernard Hickey at The Kaka) and an “absurd complication” that has made the reforms “politically toxic” (Pattrick Smellie at BusinessDesk).
It’s true that if Te Mana o te Wai statements are ignored and an analyst’s gaze is fixed solely on how Three Waters will function as an infrastructure project — which is how Hickey and Smellie, as business journalists, appear to view it — it is very easy to see co-governance at the strategic level as a “sideshow” or “complication”.
But, in fact, co-governance at the Regional Representative Group level is just one element of the comprehensive control of water being granted to iwi.
The means of control are laced throughout the Three Waters structure — including requirements for collective “knowledge of, and experience and expertise in relation to… the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi; and perspectives of mana whenua, mātauranga, tikanga, and te ao Māori”.
That, as it turns out, is a very exclusive club, which will give iwi a chokehold on who is appointed to run the nation’s water infrastructure.
In fact, below the overarching level, it is not co-governance at all; it is direct iwi governance — and Te Mana o Te Wai statements are the primary mechanism for enabling that.
The fact is the scope of the statements is unbounded and they offer iwi untrammelled power.
Taniwha weren’t the only topic that Mahuta avoided in Parliament last week. She also wouldn’t answer Simon Court’s questions asking why only iwi and hapū could make such edicts.
He said: “Why does this bill afford these rights [to make binding Te Mana o te Wai statements] only to Māori with an interest in fresh water and not to communities, businesses, and farmers who rely on fresh-water bodies for their livelihoods?”
The minister’s roundabout reply could be distilled into a claim that everyone — including farmers — will benefit from Te Mana o Te Wai statements because iwi are always thinking about the common good (including that of future generations).
Basically, iwi are wise custodians and what is good for Māori is good for everyone.
As Mahuta put it: “Te Mana o te Wai statements are developed by iwi mana whenua groups, but not for the exclusive benefit of Māori. In fact, it’s for the combined benefit of communities, the environment, and in the way that we think about the intergenerational challenge of looking after our most precious resource: water — everyone will benefit.”
That 16 per cent of the population will get to decide exclusively what is best for the remaining 84 per cent in the management of water and water infrastructure — built up over many generations by ratepayers and taxpayers, both Māori and non-Māori alike — is outrageously divisive and entirely undemocratic.
But here we are.
Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by ThePlatform.kiwi and is published here with kind permission.