Monday, 20 September 2021

Free Press, 20 September 2021


The Haps

ACT achieved its highest ever poll result at 15 percent, with momentum still growing. ACT’s polling is a barometer of where New Zealand is headed. The only party to consistently rise in the polls is calling for the country to be united behind good ideas to create wealth. The Government is fixated on dividing people and dividing wealth. For the sake of New Zealand, we need ACT to keep growing.

Three Waters

ACT has been listening to New Zealanders on three waters. The topic is not complicated, but the Government’s solution is too complicated. This week Free Press sorts the good, the bad and the ugly of the situation and proposes to unite behind good ideas.

We’ve been asking questions and listening to people at public meetings, and to experts. In the past week ACT TV hosted Sheryl Mai, mayor of Whangārei, and Bruce Smith, Mayor of Westland. Our local Government spokesperson Simon Court is a recovering civil engineer who’s worked everywhere from Fiji to Auckland Council. His better proposal is here and summarised at the end.

We believe the important questions are: Is there a problem? What is it? What is the Government proposing? Will it work? What’s a better alternative?

Taking them one by one, there ARE problems with the three waters. Lead in Dunedin water and campylobacter in Havelock North water are real problems telling us the situation is not perfect. But there are other problems.

A few thousand ratepayers in Kaipara got themselves loaded with tens of millions in debt for an overpriced sewer ten years ago and they’re still paying. Some Auckland beaches are deemed to be unswimmable 20 percent of the time. Wellington’s water is a disaster. Then you talk to developers about getting new sections connected and you start to understand the housing market a bit better.

The problem is that, a bit like DHBs, some councils just aren’t up to modern asset management. They’re also underfunded, because politicians find it much easier to get their photo taken at a summer concert or a council sponsored business than a pipe that’s underground. It smells better, too. That doesn’t apply to all councils, but there are clearly some that need money and know how to do their three waters job better.

The Government’s solution is complete overkill, overlaid with treaty politics that’s got nothing to do with water quality. If they said, ‘we are trying to solve long held treaty grievances over water while improving water quality,’ they would be wrong but at least more honest.

The proposed reorganisation is not stealing assets ratepayers have paid for. The assets will still exist and serve the same properties for a fee. The ‘theft’ hysterics have not helped the situation because they’re obviously untrue. Put it another way, if your council did get compensated, would you trust them with the money?

But there is a huge problem with the proposed new Governance model. It will be remote, complex, and unaccountable. People in Rodney district, 50 kilometres from Queen Street, find Auckland Council unresponsive. Who do you call about your water from Kaitia, 350 kilometres from Watercare headquarters?

What’s more, you’re on a totally separate water system, so what efficiencies could they possibly offer you? The Government said their system would be five times more efficient at managing Whangārei water. Sheryl Mai commissioned a report from Castalia economics, which found that claim to be exactly as implausible as it sounds.

All of that is without mentioning the co-governance aspect. Once again, the Government’s obsession with the two-state solution of treaty partnership is divisive and ineffective. Why would being born Māori give you special insights into governing three waters infrastructure? They just can’t say.

A better alternative is what ACT’s Local Government spokesperson has laid out. The nationwide water quality regulator is a good idea, but it should not regulate a couple of users sharing a bore or a tank. It should only apply to ‘water systems’ with over 30 users.

Some councils are struggling, but the answer is not collective punishment. Councils should be allowed to create voluntary cooperatives, Auckland’s Watercare and Wellington Water are examples that already exist. ACT’s central-local infrastructure partnership model, where councils are funded to build infrastructure with real accountability for using taxpayer money is already a solution to many of the problems.

The Government has made it complicated but it’s really very simple. Create a water quality regulator. Done. Dump the current plan. Easy. Draw up guidelines for voluntary sharing agreements. Simple. Partner with any council of cooperative to fund needed infrastructure with accountability. If you doubt these are good answers, ask the National Party, who’ve copied it all!