The poet Rumi once wrote:
Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
This week the government announced that they were not going to fast track their proposed Bill on the 3 Waters legislation before Christmas. It’s a good call. This gives local government a chance to debate and promote possible other courses of action, and for central government to listen to them. If we consider the 3 Waters proposal we are now at Rumi’s field beyond the wrong-doing and the right-doing. It’s time for both sides to talk and to listen to each other. Not the litany of the deaf. Proper conversations and in depth.
Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) was turned into eunuchs by a maybe-too-clever move by central government over the past year. Their own members are annoyed about the lack of consultation before an MOU was signed between LGNZ and government. The MOU certainly wasn’t an agreement between equals.
This MOU has led to the formation of an alternative local government grouping which was joined by Christchurch City Council this week. Other councils are considering joining as well. This is an excellent way to have an informed voice challenging the current flawed model being proposed by central government.
Here is the Stuff report on CCC making their excellent decision to join this newly formed group.
There are some groupings and individuals who are against the 3 Waters reforms because they are against the government. These organisations and individuals must not be allowed to obfuscate the essential dialogue which must now take place. An example of a group I personally would not support, was a media release (also asking for financial assistance) from the Taxpayers union crowing at the government’s backdown. We should be congratulating the government for pausing and taking breath. The behaviour of the Taxpayers union is precisely why government’s (of all colours) dig in and will not change their minds when they should; in case they look weak. To stop, and listen, is an example of sensible public decision making.
What must happen now is for everybody to work hard to find solutions which address the issues which drove the need for these reforms in the first place. These include:
- High water standards for all New Zealanders.
- Involvement of mana whenua.
- Need for water charges.
There can be no debate about this bottom line.
What is under severe criticism, by thoughtful members of the local government network, is that much of the data which substantiated the government case of removing the 3 Waters from local government control was wrong. A glaring example, often quoted by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Local Government, was that 34,000 people are poisoned each year by water. Currently research is being undertaken by a top scientist on this number. Think about this. If it were true, then we would all know people who have suffered water poisoning. Recently. I, personally, can’t think of one. Ever.
The 34,000 number appears to have come from a student’s paper in 2006. So far nobody can find the justification of this figure, but it has become a fact and the case for the reforms is based on it. The only poisoning from a council water system since 1995 was in Havelock North. This was a failure by the local authority to manage its system properly and by the Ministry of Health to monitor it. The local government in Hastings has rectified the well which caused the problem. I believe that the areas where there have been poisonings are in small local systems, outside council’s control, which will probably remain outside the proposed reforms.
The National Government was already considering the 3 Waters reforms, and this was being led by Bill English. The government leapt on the Havelock North poisonings, which justified what was already happening behind closed doors. When the government changed Labour picked up the behind closed doors proposed reforms and continued them.
Over the next couple of months there is lots of work to undertake and everybody who is against the 3 Waters proposal, as they are right now, have lots of work to do. A sensible regional structure must be prepared. This may change from region to region. The finances of exactly how much will be needed to achieve new water standards must also be agreed on including the financial assistance necessary to ensure small local authorities have sufficient resources to build the new infrastructure.
The first thing for central government is to listen to the working party it has established which is undertaking a review of local government. This working party should report first before anything else happens, including the RMA reforms. Local government is starved for financial resources. Central government needs to work on what instruments are needed to fill the gaps which exist right now.
Neither central, nor local, government have come out smelling of roses over the 3 Waters proposed reforms. What was proposed by central government has completely put the wind-up local government, and, in many cases, that has been a good thing. However, central government has succumbed to extremely good lobbying by InfrastructureNZ and WaterNZ and relied on weak advice from the Department of Internal Affairs. It’s time for everybody to breath through their noses. For all parties to continue talking and negotiating. Then something sensible will emerge from this which will put our water services in this country into a better state.
And that, will be an excellent outcome for the benefit of us all and for future generations.