Nanaia Mahuta must not be able to believe her good luck in being blessed with the most gullible and incurious mainstream media any quiet revolutionary could hope for.
Her good luck has continued after Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee dumped its report on Three Waters into the public arena on Friday afternoon.
Such timing is normally seen by journalists as a screaming red flag that the government wants to bury contentious information.
Its senior writer Thomas Coughlan commented similarly in a tweet:
“[In the] 200-page select committee report on Three Waters, [with] three dissenting views (Nat-Act-Green), Labour’s view can’t even bring itself to use the word ‘co-governance’ once.”
The NZ Herald is correct to point that out. It’s certainly news — but it is also completely predictable news.
Even Blind Freddie could see that Mahuta was never going to give up on that fundamental element of the reforms. Since the beginning, the minister has made co-governance a non-negotiable bottom line in any discussion of changes to Three Waters.
Astonishingly, the media failed to identify the actual bombshell.
The really radical move in the report — also overlooked entirely by Jack Tame on TVNZ’s Q&A and by Andrew Dickens interviewing Mahuta for Newstalk ZB — was the proposed extension to the scope of Te Mana o Te Wai statements.
Only iwi have the right to issue these edicts, which are binding on the Water Services Entity in their region. That right is denied to non-Maori, who make up the remaining 84 per cent of the population.
The select committee has proposed that such statements, issued exclusively by iwi, should apply not only to freshwater but coastal and geothermal water as well.
So — just like that — Three Waters will become Five Waters. And this extraordinary example of mission creep — well, surge, really — was not even hidden. It appeared on page three of the 200-page report.
In fact, rather than taking objections to co-governance into account, the select committee’s Labour majority has brazenly doubled down. It has proposed giving even more control over water to iwi than that granted in the existing bill when it passed its first reading in June.
Presenting such a revolutionary feature so prominently and early in the document looks as if it is happily taunting the legacy media — as a picador might a blind, dehorned and crippled bull confident it can do him no harm.
So far, the government’s confidence that this proposed expansion of iwi control would go unremarked by journalists has been vindicated.
It didn’t get past former Kaipara Mayor Dr Jason Smith, however. He was a member of the government’s Working Group on Representation, Governance and Accountability of New Three Waters Entities last year, and was one of the very few to point out early on just how much control the right to issue binding Te Mana o Te Wai statements would give iwi.
On Friday, Dr Smith pointed on Twitter to “an extraordinary new development”, and highlighted the section on page three in the committee report that noted:
“In the bill as introduced [to Parliament in June], Te Mana o Te Wai and Te Mana o Te Wai statements would only apply to freshwater bodies. However, water services also discharge into coastal water, and may affect geothermal water.
“We believe it would be appropriate to expand the bill’s application of Te Mana o Te Wai to these other water bodies. This would be consistent with te ao Māori (the Māori world view), which does not distinguish between applying the concept to freshwater or coastal water.
“We also consider that Te Mana o Te Wai statements should apply to all water bodies, and WSEs should give effect to these statements. To this effect, we recommend inserting clause 4(4) to state that Te Mana o Te Wai applies to freshwater, coastal water, and geothermal water.”
As Dr Smith put it: “Now, after all, Three Waters [turns out to be] all about all the land and 50 miles out to sea. It’s not about broken water pipes close to home.
“We’ve been played in an old-fashioned ‘bait and switch’.”
It’s easy to be fooled by the idea that Te Mana o Te Wai statements are only concerned with water purity. It’s certainly what the government wants everyone to think.
However, it is clear from Mahuta’s explanations — both in Parliament and in official documents — that these statements can include anything from improving Māori job prospects to invoking taniwha lurking in their hidey-holes near water courses.
As Mahuta herself stated in a June 2021 Cabinet Paper:
“I see the [Te Mana o Te Wai] statements as being holistic, enabling Māori to express a broad wellbeing approach, consistent with a te ao Māori approach to such matters, including economic, cultural, social and environmental expectations.
“Such statements could contain economic aspirations with respect to Māori enterprise and job creation, particularly – but not exclusively – in areas related to mātauranga Māori expertise.”
In fact, Te Mana o Te Wai statements regarding water can cover whatever the nation’s more than 1200 iwi and hapu consider to be in their interests. As long as iwi deem them to be consistent with their view of matauranga Māori (Māori knowledge), tikanga (customs) and te ao Māori, anything goes.
And the bill makes it clear that the four Water Services Entities have to obey them.
Co-governance at the overarching strategic level of the four Regional Representative Groups is just one mechanism in the bill for gifting disproportionate control over water to iwi, and arguably not the most significant.
As Dr Smith put it: “Co-governance is one thing but Te Mana o Te Wai statements are quite another. They’re not co-governance but are the biggest aspect of Three Waters reforms overlooked by most people.”
What’s astonishing is that even senior mainstream journalists — including prominent political analysts — have overlooked the significance of Te Mana o Te Wai statements. Instead, they have concentrated entirely on co-governance at the level of the four Regional Representative Groups.
Believing that co-governance is the only significant mechanism in the bill that hands power to iwi, they grumble about what they see as little more than an annoying bolt-on that is weighing down an otherwise useful infrastructure project.
Consequently, Bernard Hickey (The Kaka) can happily dismiss co-governance as an “inconsequential sideshow” with Pattrick Smellie (BusinessDesk) describing it as an “absurd complication” that has made the reforms “politically toxic”.
They have it entirely round the wrong way. As David Seymour put it: “Three Waters is a Treaty settlement disguised as an infrastructure project.”
Now that the select committee has recommended extending the reach of Te Mana o Te Wai statements to include coastal and geothermal water, the infrastructure side is beginning to look like the bolt-on to the mother of all Treaty settlements.
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.