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.