THE NATIONAL PARTY stands at the beginning of an unsealed road which, if followed, might just carry it to victory. The question, now, is whether the party possesses the guts to set off down it. Sometimes politicians hit upon a winning strategy by accident, unaware that they have done so. National’s answer to the Government’s controversial Three Waters project may be a case in point. Wittingly, or unwittingly, National’s policy reflects the principle of subsidiarity – i.e. the idea that the best decisions are those made by the communities required to live most closely with their consequences. Set against Labour’s preference for large, centralised (and almost always unresponsive) bureaucracies, National’s preference for the local and the accountable has much to recommend it.
Labour, meanwhile, may find that its road to October has been closed. Rather than proceed with all speed down the path of repudiation and reprioritisation promised by Chris Hipkins when he became Prime Minister, the exigencies of dealing with the Auckland Anniversary Weekend Floods and Cyclone Gabrielle appear to have provided Hipkins’ caucus opponents with a chance to regroup and push back.
This was especially true of Three Waters. The period within which the unequivocal repudiation of the project remained politically feasible was always dangerously short. Indeed, the slightest delay threatened to make its abandonment impossible. Nor was the threat exclusively internal. The longer Hipkins put off Three Waters’ demise, the greater the risk that National would produce a viable and popular alternative. Which is exactly what it has done.
Announced with uncharacteristic political savvy at the National Party’s “Blue-Greens” conference in Nelson, the Opposition’s alternative closely reflects the ideas and plans formulated by the local government opponents of Three Waters. National is promising to restore the ownership of the nation’s drinking, waste and stormwater infrastructure to its local authority owners – albeit at the cost of the latter submitting to improved and much stronger regulatory oversight.
National’s decision to restore of local authorities’ property could hardly have come at a more opportune moment, given the very recent judicial observation that the asset base of the Three Waters’ “entities” had, indeed, been “expropriated”, from their local authority owners without the payment of fair and adequate compensation. It is a measure of the reckless radicalism of the Three Waters project that a New Zealand court could endorse such a claim. In no other context is it possible to imagine a Labour Cabinet signing-off on expropriation without compensation – a policy worthy of Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
Not that National is averse to a little Bolshevism on its own account. Its “Local Water Done Well” policy paper confirms that local authorities unable to meet the costs of transitioning to the new system without incurring a ruinous level of debt, or striking an impossibly high rate, will be able to turn to the Crown for a “one off” grant. Spurning the short-termism that has plagued infrastructural development for the past four decades, National is also hinting at the availability of long-term (and, presumably, lower-interest) finance for long-term water investments. Such promises point to the strong possibility that, in the expensive upgrading of the nation’s water infrastructure, the New Zealand state will both a borrower and a lender be.
If this is, indeed, what National is planning – and by what other means could citizens escape crippling rate increases and/or water charges? – then it is reasonable to predict a decisive shift in the relationship between New Zealand’s central and local government institutions. If the drift towards ever larger and more remote central bureaucracies is to be halted, then a radically new way of funding local infrastructure and the provision of local services will have to be devised. It is simply untenable for the present practice of central government offloading more and more responsibilities onto local authorities, while simultaneously withholding the funding needed to pay for them, to continue. There is a limit to how much can be borrowed affordably from private lenders, just as there is a democratic limit to the size and frequency of local government rate-hikes.
If National has, at long last, recognised this, then it can present itself as offering something new and progressive to the electorate. Subsidiarity is, after all, entirely congruent with the conservative (but not the neoliberal) view of politics. Conservatives are deeply suspicious of strong, centralised states which have no need to fear the displeasure of their citizens. Democracy, as a means of ensuring political accountability, similarly decreases in efficacy the further away the decisions affecting citizens’ daily lives are made. When the Americans say, “all politics is local”, they’re speaking the truth.
While it is easy to understand Chris Hipkins having other things on his mind these past few weeks, it is not so easy to forgive him for letting Three Waters – and all that it has come to stand for – slip through his fingers. Three Waters was, after all, the big test of whether or not his promises of reprioritisation were genuine, or just more Labour Party spin. He didn’t even have to come up with a detailed alternative, merely a promise to repeal the legislation and begin again. Starting, perhaps, with the proposals put forward by Communities 4 Local Democracy. (Now the basis of National’s plan!) His failure to maintain his momentum on this issue has allowed Christopher Luxon and his National colleagues to steal a march on Labour and, amazingly, outflank them on the left.
Making everything worse, are the public misgivings about the way Labour is handling the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle. Intended or not, accurate or not, Hipkins’ downplaying of claims of lawlessness in the stricken communities of Tairawhiti and Hawkes Bay reminded too many people of the Covid emergency’s infallible “Podium of Truth”. Compounding Labour’s difficulties is Forestry Minister Stuart Nash’s inability to fully articulate the locals’ white-hot rage at the forestry companies. The latter’s failure to do anything about the hugely destructive volumes of “slash” that repeated storms have sent crashing into bridges, fences, orchards and people’s homes, has outraged the whole country. If ever there was a moment for righteous ministerial wrath, then, surely, this is it. Action, not yet another expert inquiry, is what the situation demands. Action, and the colourful condemnatory language of a Bob Semple or a Jack Lee. Labour men who really did “move with speed” in a crisis.
For Chris Hipkins and Labour, the state highway to October has been rendered impassable by inaction and political slash. Christopher Luxon and National, meanwhile, have discovered an unsealed road without slips and fallen trees. It’s not their usual way of reaching the Treasury Benches, but, with a bit of luck, it just might get them where they want to go.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website of Monday, 27 February 2023.
An excellent column. I had expected Hipkins to move on repealing 3 Waters with the greatest of speed. Instead he has stalled and seems dead in the water. If Hipkins thinks the recent flooding's exposure of the inadequacy of our stormwater systems provides an argument for the expropriation of community assets (the High Court's judgement was very timely) he is deluded. And long live subsidiarity!
Chris: "National’s policy reflects the principle of subsidiarity – i.e. the idea that the best decisions are those made by the communities required to live most closely with their consequences. Set against Labour’s preference for large, centralised (and almost always unresponsive) bureaucracies, National’s preference for the local and the accountable has much to recommend it.'
Yes Chris, how many more centralised monstrosities do we have to endure but great to see a conservative party at least attempting a return to principle rather than getting sidetracked into big business/big government ideology. Another great essay from Paul Kingsnorth that explores (what he calls) reactionary radicalism.
Excerpt: "The moral economy was destroyed, and we live in its commercialised ruins. Not only did they lose, but the ideologies of the modern age, both Right and Left, have an interest in burying their memories. The Marx-inflected Left wants no truck with workers who resisted capitalism in order to defend traditional ways of life, because those traditional ways stink of “reaction” and what Marx himself called “the idiocy of rural life”. Meanwhile, because modern conservatism has attached itself limpet-like to capitalism, its advocates today can often be found defending the very matrix of global trade, empire and unaccountable corporate power that laid waste to the last remaining “conservative” cultures in England."
Conclusion: "Reactionary radicalism operates at the human scale, and not at the scale on which ideology operates. Ideology is the enemy of particularity, which is why every modern revolution has ended up turning on its own people. From the mass murder of peasants in the Vendee by French revolutionaries to the Bolshevik slaughter of workers in Kronstadt, ideology is always the enemy of genuine, rooted communities. Real culture — human-scale culture — is messy. It cannot be labelled. The moral economy rarely makes rational sense. But it makes human sense. And that is what matters."
Hipkins has lost the impetus to fix the corrosive 3 Waters. He had little time to play with and in the classic snooze, you lose moment, National just pulled the rug from under them by promising they'll scrap it. The details matter not, the commitment was all that was needed. Chippy can't even offer a watered down version anymore probably like he wanted as that will be a the same but different version no one trusts.
As for lawlessness, it's a predictable side effect of Labours law and order policies experienced constantly in Auckland that is coming home to roost in the Hawkes Bay. Nash has been particularly unconvincing and cringe worthy in his responses. What appears to accompany this policy is an evolving addition of blanket denials and that the police senior hierarchy are singing from the same song sheet is concerning for political interference reasons. The utter nonsense that crime reporting stats were down failed to acknowledge the mass disconnection of the public from any means of communication plus the police's shutting off stations to the them. And telling people exposed to lawlessness that they are making it up only infuriate it's victims and alienates the idiot denying it.
The wheels are starting to fall off Labours comeback. Chippy needed to put daylight between him and the Ardern administration, very quickly. He simply hasn't!
So in other words, National has decided essentially to stick with the status quo. Which has worked really well so far hasn't it? Obviously Chris, you haven't had a great deal to do with Wellington water. Or the Wellington City Council which has underfunded it for decades.
Maybe Luxon and National have found a "road" to the Treasury benches but it will be a hard road to hoe when they get there.
Many fail to give credit to Luxon for his turning the party around but forgetting that he has a very unfavourable media continually distorting and outright lying to bring him down.
Look at the con job on Pugh. Newshub deliberately left out the fact that Pugh's comment was that the local council was still waiting for a reply from shaw showing them the evidence that anthropogenic climate change is a real thing not a figment of an over ambitious imagination.
She did not deny climate change merely questioned why shaw was struggling to provide the evidence. Bang, it becomes a weaponised comment to run to Luxon with, point it and pull the trigger. Expect a lot more of the same people as desperation within the labour left ranks soars.
There is not even an attempt to provide equitable standards. This condemns the rural poor and the socio-economically disadvantaged regions to be left behind. It is a shameful open disengagement with the egalitarian principles our infrastructure was built upon. This consolidates all that is wrong with the current system and extends it to deteriorate and cause crisis within this generation and beyond.
Service delivery without equity for the poor...postal code poverty for the provision of that which is essential for life...within regions those already empowered (i.e.. farming corporations)controlling the use and services for water...
This is the Nats being their manipulative and cynical selves at the cost of the future.
"with a bit of luck...." yes National will certainly need that especially after the explanation of what their policy actually means for local councils, which is 1. Ring fence council revenue for water infrastructure management, 2. Borrow for water infrastructure management, 3. Increase rates for water infrastructure management, or 4. If none of the above then central govt will send in the commissioners and take control of the council.....................
"New Roads to somewhere" the new slogan from National. Apart from the usual right leaning die hards is the NZ electorate that ignorant to fall for such a con as a costly ride on a rut ridden unsealed back road to nowhere........
Seems to me we have a number of different variations in the way councils have managed water.
You have Auckland say which is a large city so doesn't really need to spend much per capita on distributing water and according to some people have kept the distribution system up-to-date.
You have other large cities like Wellington where they've underfunded the water distribution system for years, so it's basically falling apart.
And then – more importantly – you have places where it costs quite a lot per capita to distribute water, and they haven't done a brilliant job of managing it, though it's probably not their fault that they haven't.
So it seems obvious to me that central government needs a role in paying for water distribution, because some councils don't stand a show of upgrading their water systems any time for the foreseeable future. And for certain, places like Auckland don't want to be subsidising it.
But at least some of these councils, almost all of which are run by conservatives incidentally, want to keep hold of the water pipes because they are empire building or at least Empire maintaining. Under the excuse of local knowledge/local decision-making. Which is worked really well so far hasn't it? /s
The strengthening of oversight provisions should get recalcitrant councils to take their responsibilities a lot more seriously GS. Sewage spewing onto the streets and Wellington voters continue to elect people that prioritise stupid vanity projects - unused cycle lanes and rainbow pedestrian crossings for instance. One of your responsibility as a ratepayer and voter is to hold your representatives responsible - what's the matter with the people of Wellington. It's a bit like the New Orleans story I posted previously.
I've mentioned before the serious conflict of interest problem inherent in giving opaque commercial interests (IWI) undemocratic board selection rights to oversee public assets and resources. It must be "racist" to even talk about it, it hasn't been mentioned but I'm pleased this new proposal gets round that problem to some extent. Still a serious concern with Labour's resource management reforms though.
The Barron - 'This condemns the rural poor and the socio-economically disadvantaged regions to be left behind.' Unusual description of Wellington, then again I haven't been there in over 30 years, so perhaps it has changed.
They certainly seem to have continuously voted for local politicians that had zero interest in basic infrastructure, yet now want to get the rest of us to pay for their own negligence.
For once I find myself in agreement with Guerilla Surgeon.
Wellington City Council has underfunded its water infrastructure for years.
Due to Labour and Green Councils investing millions in vanity projects:
I will list a few.
Subsidising Singapore Airlines to provide a totally uneconomic connection between Wellington and Canberra.
Deciding it needs 2 town halls.
Building hugely expensive cycleways which are totally underutilised.
Subsidising entertainments on the dubious basis that they bring business to Wellington.
Even expensive silliness like rainbow pedestrian crossings.
They have also voted in a succession of mayors who have been totally ineffectual. [and that is being kind.]
Now they want the rest of us to bail them out.
Bowalley Road will happily post your comments, Sumsuch, providing they address the subject matter of the original post coherently and are not filled with abuse of its moderator.
It really isn't a good strategy to attack the bouncer if you want to gain entry to the nightclub.
The reason why councils waste money on vanity projects is because the Clark Labour government changed the law covering local councils. They gave councils 'the right of general competance' - which meant that instead of restricting local government to local roads, water (yes all 3 types) planning etc they could now spend money on anything that the community wanted - so V8s, entertainment, publicity schemes (eg Singapore airlines) and all sorts of wasteful projects. So the blame as to why Wellington has broken pipes can be laid at the government of Helen Clarks door
It is your division into "they" and "their" that is at the heart of the problem. The current council led system has failed most communities. National seem to think this is fine, but councils may join to Balkanise the water services with those with greater power further empowered.
I am clear that services essential for communities and life should have equity of access. The only way to do this is to move from the subgovermental model to one led by the elected central government. I am amazed by the media using the phrase "mega-entities", the scale of NZ is such that 4 providers are decentralized by most standards.
Hey Barron, list the councils that are failing their ratepayers regarding water reticulation and or quality.
You make a sweeping statement without any effort to produce a single fact.
Then look at the minority that are failing and look at their governance. Pretty sure you find the lefty efforts in Wellington at the top of the pile.
The Wellington City Council is one, and judging by the results of the last election it's by no means a Labour council. Most of them are in fact "independent". Which basically means "I'm National but I don't want anyone to know because it might lose me votes."
I'm not sure the composition of the Hastings City Council at the time those people died from polluted water, but given the area it send was probably not a Labour city council – can't be sure about that though.
Anon. Again, singling out individual councils should be redundant. All councils have work to do that reaches billions of dollars in deferred work.
Auckland, often raised as the example of a better council, had an officer written proposal to cut storm water spending prior to Jan. 27 [NB: the officers were asked to identify potential cuts, this had not been before the mayor or council].
From Gore to Hawkes Bay to the far north there is identified and partly costed deficit beyond the current rate funding system.
Here are the priorities for the Wellington councillors, no one saw fit to mention the sewerage problem you'll note. Two said something vague about core services and water. Expect more sewage on the streets and even more unaffordable rates Wellington
Laurie Foon (Dep. Mayor): is particularly passionate about ensuring Wellington becomes a low carbon city through initiatives such as Let’s Get Wellington Moving, intensification of housing, and making it easier to get around the city using low carbon transport options. Laurie is also focused on ensuring there is a sustainable food system that is good for the planet, which incorporates a circular economy.
Nureddin Abdurahman: His priorities as a councillor include affordable housing, investment in water infrastructure and action on climate change.
John Apanowicz: John has created a number of companies and performed consulting and contract assignments in the areas of strategic and operational financial accounting, company secretarial practice and corporate governance in the Arts, Health, Government and Education sectors all around Wellington.
Tim Brown: no priorities quoted
Diane Calvert: no priorities quoted
Ray Chung: technological industry background [helped] establish the Onslow Residents Community Association six years ago and enjoyed representing community concerns and issues.
Sarah Free: held the portfolio for community infrastructure and the portfolio for walking, cycling and public transport infrastructure. trustee on the Wellington Zoo board. Chair of the Regulatory Process Committee and the councillor representative to the Pacific Advisory Group.
Ben McNulty: Ben’s passion to run for council stems from the desire to see all Wellingtonians housed and to maintain access to high quality council services in Pōneke.
Teri O'Neill: Labour Party endorsed candidate. Close to her heart is a drive to help those less fortunate by prioritising compassion, eliminating homelessness in Wellington, and improving housing.
Iona Pannett: no priorities mentioned
Tamatha Paul: zero waste Wellington, connecting communities, an aspiration for a living wage city, and the importance of prioritising future facing leadership.
Tony Randle: public transport advocate
Nikau Wi Neera: Nīkau put his passion for Tiriti justice, community, and te Taiao into practice by standing for the newly-established Māori Ward on the Wellington City Council as a candidate for the Green Party of Aotearoa NZ
Nicola Young: Nicola wants Wellington to be vibrant and affordable, with core services delivered well. She is particularly proud of winning the fight against KiwiRail’s proposal to site the terminal for its new mega-sized ferries in the city's inner harbour, her work on the CBD laneway upgrades, and her support of the arts.
Reality is now clear.
This is THE crisis decade of our species.
MJS was 67 when he came to power in that other crisis decade.
I'm happy to play the part of my rather loony 70-year-old ancestor at that moment. I hope you will step up, like Cicero, to this late life challenge.
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