ANDREA VANCE’S CLAIM that: “Beyond 2022’s local government elections, Three Waters will be yesterday’s controversy”, is a bold one. Had the Delta Variant of Covid-19 not made it to New Zealand, and if Jacinda Ardern’s government was still basking in the warm glow of public adulation, then it is just possible that the Three Waters project would, indeed, have become “yesterday’s controversy” by 2023. But Delta did arrive, and the Prime Minister has become the lightning-rod for a noisy political movement dedicated to the utter destruction of both herself and her government. Labour’s Three Waters project can only assume an ever-increasing salience as that anti-government movement grows.
What Vance was careful to sidestep in her Polyanna-ish determination to focus our attention on the good intentions of Nanaia Mahuta and her colleagues, was the rock-solid promises of both the National and Act parties to dismantle the entire scheme the moment they reclaim the Treasury Benches. This is hardly surprising, because the Right’s pledge to repeal Three Waters makes a nonsense of the Government’s key explanation for the undemocratic construction of the four “entities” responsible for delivering the Three Water’s objectives.
We are told, by Vance herself, that the governance structure has been designed according to the specifications of the Standard & Poor’s credit rating agency – now known as S&P Global Ratings. Without it, says S&P, the cheap money required to repair New Zealand’s drinking-, storm-, and waste-water infrastructure will not be forthcoming.
It is worth spending a few moments unpicking this extraordinary intervention from the enforcers of international finance. Essentially, what the world’s money-lenders are saying is that, when it comes to financing large infrastructure projects, democratic accountability is a deal-breaker. The surprise here is not S&P’s demand, but this government’s uncritical acceptance of it. Rarely has the naked power-politics of the neoliberal world order been on such unabashed display. That the Labour Cabinet, Labour’s parliamentary caucus, and the Labour Party organisation, itself, have so meekly rolled-over on this issue is astonishing. That they have then concluded that slitting Democracy’s throat is their sad but necessary duty, is more than astonishing – it’s chilling.
Vance simply passes over this brutal abrogation of New Zealand’s sovereignty, and the political facilitation it has elicited, without comment, exposing with unusual clarity the ideological bankruptcy of “woke” journalism. Vance is eloquent in her description of the racism inherent in local government’s treatment of Māori, but she has nothing at all to say about the derangement of this country’s democratic institutions at the behest of neoliberalism’s international enforcers. The wonder of it all is that Vance and her journalistic colleagues still evince surprise and indignation when they find themselves bracketed with the Left’s politicians as “enemies of the people”.
Returning to S&P’s bottom line, the question arises: How will the world’s lenders react to the pledge of New Zealand’s right-wing parties to dismantle the Three Waters project? Asked to invest money in a venture so subject to the whims of the electorate, it beggars belief to suggest that any lender so disposed would not demand a premium rate of interest. Only a fool would throw cheap money into such a risky enterprise, and whatever else international financiers may be – they are not fools.
This creates an insurmountable problem for Mahuta and her colleagues. If the whole justification for the undemocratic structure of the Three Waters project is that nothing else can guarantee access to the cheap money needed to make it happen. And if it then turns out that the political risk involved with the Three Waters project is so great that the possibility of cheap money must be taken off the table. Well, then the justification the Three Waters project – as presently structured – must also be taken off the table.
That this would be the outcome must have been clear to Mahuta’s economic advisers. So, why is she still proceeding? Without the support of the right-wing parties, the Three Waters project simply cannot assume that the necessary cheap money will be forthcoming. Mahuta’s conduct only makes sense if the cheap money argument is nothing more than a smokescreen for another, much more important, if unstated, set of objectives.
Vance, herself, makes reference to this opaque communications environment:
“Where the Government has failed is in its communication of its intentions, and critics have exploited this weakness. Mahuta is not a natural communicator and has done a poor job of explaining how the asset ownership works, fudging direct questions about royalties.”
As well she might, if “royalties” were included among those important and unstated objectives.
Vance will not, however, entertain for one moment the idea that there may be more to Three Waters than cheap money. With unseemly relish she reaches for that trusty journalistic stand-by: the accusation of conspiracy theorising. So handy whenever the paths of inquiry lead into territory neither editors nor publishers are keen to have their journalists traverse:
“Some critics have drawn a very long bow with a conspiracy theory which links the Three Waters proposals to the question of allocation of water rights.”
A long bow? Really? When the Waitangi Tribunal and a growing number of iwi have made it clear that the question of “Who owns the water?” must be answered soon – and that the correct answer is neither “The Crown”, nor “Nobody/Everybody”. A long bow? When the He Puapua Report, commissioned by Mahuta, makes it clear that by 2040 the restoration of Māori water rights should be an acknowledged and accomplished fact.
Mahuta’s strategic reticence on discussing Three Waters freely and fulsomely, along with Vance’s airy dismissal of any significant reasons for her doing so, are all of a piece. At their heart lies a deep (and not unjustified) fear that the truth will outrage sufficient New Zealanders to kill the project stone dead. This government, and its journalistic bodyguard, no longer trust the democratic system to deliver the “right” answers. Their response: to propose, and defend, a massive centralisation of power in bodies sealed-off from democratic accountability.
This would have been a bad idea in the very best of circumstances. Pursued with the sort of ruthlessness we have witnessed in the case of Nanaia Mahuta’s Three Waters, it has turned out to be much more than a bad idea. In the minds of a growing number of frightened and angry New Zealanders Mahuta’s project is further evidence of a political project of unprecedented scale and ambition. Justified, or unjustified, in the fraught conditions imposed upon New Zealand society by the Delta incursion, the belief is growing that Labour is making plans for New Zealand. Plans that its citizens will have no opportunity to either endorse or reject.
Andrea Vance rejects these people’s fears as conspiracy theories. She remains confident that Three Waters and its political siblings will be “yesterday’s controversies” by the time the next General Election rolls around in 2023. If she’s right, then all will be well for the Labour Government and its media apologists.
But, if she’s wrong …..
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 16 November 2021.