By Matthew Rosenberg, Local Democracy Reporter
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta is stressing the importance of mana whenua involvement in Three Waters after a pair of southern councillors took shots at partnership with Māori.
Councils were given a deadline of Thursday last week to submit feedback on the proposed reform which shifts the management of drinking, waste and stormwater away from individual councils and into the hands of centralised regional authorities.
The proposed authorities — four in total — would operate with a governance structure consisting of both council and mana whenua appointees.
In the South Island, a single authority would be overseen by an up to 12 person-strong representation group. The authority would have governance of all the island's Three Waters, minus Nelson, Marlborough and the Chatham Islands.
But the proposal has sparked backlash from concerned ratepayers, and pockets of councils, who fear it equates to an asset grab.
Some councillors have taken aim at the intentional inclusion of Māori in the management structure.
In the South, Invercargill deputy mayor Nobby Clark wrote an opinion piece for a widely read local blog where he decried mana whenua being given half of the voting rights in the proposed entity.
By his calculations, Ngāi Tahu could "veto" the wishes of councils and "95.2 per cent of the population in the South Island".
Dunedin city councillor Lee Vandervis labelled the reform an "asset grab" and warned of Māori gaining "control" of water assets in a speech given last Saturday at a freedom of choice event which protested Covid-19 lockdown regulations.
But Mahuta said the reform was not about shifting ownership of the assets. While mana whenua would have a role in the oversight and strategic direction of the proposed water entities through regional representation groups, the new entities would be collectively owned by councils, she said.
"Continued public ownership of our water infrastructure and services is a bottom line for the Government and we are developing safeguards against future privatisation."
She also stressed the importance of an intergenerational approach, highlighting the fact that for mana whenua, water is a taonga.
"Along with councils, mana whenua will have a role in the oversight and setting the strategic direction of the proposed water entities through joint participation in the regional representative groups. This is not ownership."
Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan hit back at criticism of mana whenua input, saying Māori were merely claiming what they had a legal right to.
"The Government's rights for Ngāi Tahu were recognised in the 1998 Ngāi Tahu Land Settlement ... it's been enshrined in legislation for 23 years," he said.
Between drinking and environmental standards, the Government calculates between $120 billion and $185 billion needs to be invested in water infrastructure.
Ngāi Tahu Te Kura Taka Pini (freshwater group) agreed water services across the country were under extreme pressure, and said reform creating higher standards should be welcomed.
"These Three Waters proposals are not about ownership, and nor should they be," a spokesperson said.
"Ngāi Tahu has worked constructively with the Department of Internal Affairs and councils to ensure that we understand the proposals, and offer our assistance in making sure that whatever reforms are adopted work for all South Islanders."
In Gore, Mayor Tracy Hicks said his council had reaped the benefits of engaging with local rūnanga in a memorandum of understanding which dated back about 10 years.
Hicks said Gore District Council had set aside "a significant figure" for cultural awareness training, and engagement with Ngāi Tahu had been constructive.
"Their perspective is in centuries as opposed to tens-of-years, like we think," Hicks said.
"That brings with it its challenges, but it brings a sense of perspective we don't always get.
"Ngāi Tahu are very organised and strategic in their operation and planning."
But with councils already pulling out around the country, and more than 40,000 people signing a Taxpayers' Union petition to stop the reform going ahead, Mahuta has her work cut out for her.
Asked by a reporter yesterday if she was discouraged by some of the sentiment coming from Pākehā-majority councils in the south, Mahuta was honest that not all councils were on par with each other with their understandings of Treaty obligations.
"I think we've got to recognise if we can find ways for central government to partner with iwi Māori, that has multiplying benefits for a community and a region," she said.
"Three Waters space is an exceptional set of challenges for the sector. But I've not had a door closed in my face.
"I've had many things said, but the communication channels are still open."