National leader Judith Collins says several South Island mayors are concerned by the Government’s advanced plans to transfer 50 per cent of the island’s publicly-owned water assets to iwi ownership - a claim later denied by the iwi involved.
The Department of Internal Affairs presented the Government’s preferred option for water reform to 23 mayors and Ngāi Tahu, Collins said in a statement.
This new mainland water agency would assume ownership of all water assets and some council debt.
Collins said National was of the understanding that four mega-agencies will be set up across Aotearoa as part of the Three Waters proposal to manage water assets. The agencies would be similar to Auckland’s Watercare.
"This means councils that have invested ratepayer money in pipes, wastewater and drinking water facilities for decades would have these assets taken away," Collins said.
"Several mayors reached out to me after the meeting to express their profound concern. Needless to say this move would have far-reaching implications."
Collins said this plan was another example of Labour adopting policy which reflects an interpretation that Te Tiriti o Waitangi promises a "dual governance" system.
"Ngāi Tahu are a well-run organisation that may do a good job of managing this water infrastructure, but that is not the point here.
"The point is, Labour has now decided the Treaty requires separate systems of governance and fifty-fifty ownership of resources with iwi, and it is making these changes before having a national conversation about whether this is actually what the Treaty decrees.
"We’ve already seen these changes happen with Māori council wards and the proposed Māori Health Authority but similar reforms are imagined in resource management, the conservation estate, the justice system, Oranga Tamariki, and elsewhere."
Collins called on the Government to pause all of this work so that it could explain why it had adopted this new interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi as well as the extent of its plans.
"If we are truly a team of five million then the prime minister must have the courage to have this debate with all New Zealanders."
Following Collins' claims Dr Te Maire Tau, chair of Te Kura Taka Pini, the Ngāi Tahu freshwater group, quashed the claims.
“Ngāi Tahu believes the water infrastructure asset must remain in public ownership. The tribe has been discussing co-governance of what will be publicly owned assets. Our goal is to ensure greater community representation, better environmental and health outcomes, and to safeguard against future privatisation," Tau said in a statement.
“Ngāi Tahu views co-governance with the tribe as an effective safeguard against any attempts by future governments to privatise water assets that are being transferred from councils.
“Labour governments in the 1980s and National governments in the 1990s and 2010s, including the one in which Judith Collins served as a senior minister, have not been able to resist the temptation of selling public infrastructure – from electricity networks to rail to offshore interests. The Ngāi Tahu presence would provide extra protection against that.
“Ngāi Tahu has obligations and responsibilities to protect freshwater in the South Island that transcend central and local government election cycles. We have a focus on environment and wellbeing first.
“If Judith Collins had bothered to ask Ngāi Tahu about this proposal, instead of seeking headlines, she would have had the correct facts sooner.”