Mahuta admits getting things wrong with Three Waters reform

Source: 1News

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta says she got two aspects wrong when it came to the Three Waters reform.

Appearing on Q+A with Jack Tame on Sunday, Mahuta said the first was she "underestimated" how much the public "really knew what was happening with pipes under the ground".

"They had a lot more knowledge about the tradeoffs that councils were always making in relation to what gets spent above the ground, what gets spent under the ground.

"It wasn't until pipes burst or we had dirty water going into our rivers and things that people felt there was a problem, so it was kinda out of mind, out of sight."

There was also an issue with the reform's advertising campaign, Mahuta said. The $3.5 million campaign, which depicted animated people using poor quality water, was labelled by critics as misleading and irresponsible.

"There was a high level of sensitivity from local government around that campaign because they felt they were getting blamed for something," she said.

"I acknowledge that decades of underinvestment in water infrastructure is within the council purview, but perhaps the advertising campaign wasn't the best way to tell the message.

"Those are two areas that I underestimated that I got wrong and I accept responsibility for that. Going forward, the need for reform is absolutely clear."

READ MORE: Claims Māori will own NZ’s water infrastructure dismissed

When asked if she was the right person to be leading the reform, Mahuta said she'd "hate to think" work was being held up because of "personality issues".

"Every step of the way, I've tried to ensure that I've engaged with the sector."

Mahuta added that she thought she was the right person to lead the change.

READ MORE: Three Waters feedback seems unlikely to sway Government

However, National's local government spokesperson Simon Watts said Mahuta's "admissions" showed her relationships with local councils were "broken".

"Even with the superficial changes recommended by their working group, Labour's Three Waters agenda is still fatally flawed.

"If Minister Mahuta wants to regain any credibility with local government, she must mend her broken relationships with councils and take her Three Waters plans back to the drawing board," he said.

Mahuta's comments on Q+A come after a working group last week recommended significant changes to the Government's Three Waters proposal off the back of strident opposition.

Among the recommendations was allowing councils to hold shares in the Three Waters entities so that the community would have ownership over its water services assets. The working group also suggested further protections against privatisation.

Mahuta said the recommendations were a "breath of fresh air".

"I am considering the range of helpful recommendations they've put forward to strengthen governance, representation and local voice."

The Government announced plans late last year to create four publicly-owned water entities that would manage the country's drinking, storm and wastewater. This would take direct control away from councils.

The Government cited an estimated cost of $180 billion to fix New Zealand's broken and decrepit water infrastructure. They also said that, without the reforms, people would be paying significantly more for their water.

A 1News poll in January showed that about 35 per cent of people were unsure of the reform or were unaware they were happening at all.

The Three Waters reform project was triggered by an outbreak of waterborne disease gastroenteritis in Havelock North in 2016. It led to the death of four people and made thousands more seriously ill.

A report following the incident found district council-run public drinking water systems were potentially unsafe because of long-term underinvestment.

Under the Three Waters proposal, the Government would take on the debt risk associated with the new water service entities. That would allow for greater sums to be borrowed to repair, maintain and improve water infrastructure. However, there was concern the Government's draft legislation for the changes appeared to fail to do this.