Gordon Campbell on Auckland’s ghastly mayor, and the water reforms

b0838caeba1dd73c4239By crikey, once Wayne Brown finds out who was in charge of the city during Auckland’s anniversary foods, I bet they’ll cop an earful. So far, Brown’s reaction to former Police Commissioner Mike Bush’s 107 page review of the flood response has been depressingly typical.

For example: Even though the review criticised the lack of leadership and poor communication on the night, Brown did not attend the press conference for the report’s release and do the basics of taking the criticism on the chin and re-assuring the public that it wouldn’t happen again. Brown then declined a number of interview requests about the report. Instead, he left his long suffering deputy Desley Simpson to take the initial heat.

There was worse. Just prior to the report’s release, Brown addressed a lunch-time meeting where he criticised members of Council staff by name, in a context where they had no ability to defend themselves. Oh, and there is also this gem:

The Council will be holding an “unscheduled drill” to test their preparedness for more extreme weather. [Brown] said that the drill would be held no later than Friday, October 13 of this year.

Presumably this drill is in response to this proposal contained within Bush’s 17 recommendations:

Deliver more frequent emergency management training exercises, which should involve the mayor

Hmm. Let’s all hope that Brown can find space in his diary for this drill, in between playing tennis with his pals. No word yet on what aspect of the “unscheduled drill” will be devoted to testing and improving Brown’s own lamentable lack of leadership initiative in a crisis. Maybe he could be strapped in a chair and shown slides of Bob Parker after the earthquakes?

Alas, Auckland local government has two and half more years to endure under the leadership of someone who seems chronically inclined to blame his underlings – in public – for what are in part at least, his own failings. This does not bode well for the Auckland council’s ability to attract the top talent required to address the challenges facing the city.

As things stand, who in their right mind would want to work for someone who looks like a case study in vindictiveness and petulance?

Watering the Whine

Goodbye Three Waters, hello Affordable Water Reform. What doesn’t change is the estimated $180 billion cost of fixing this country’s ageing water infrastructure, a bill that plainly can’t be left to local body politicians. The current councils and their predecessors have been unwilling – or unable – to do what is required.

Some of them appear to be hellbent though, on stopping anyone else from doing the job, either. That parish pump may be broken, but its their parish pump.

As a result… For the best part of 12 months, large swathes of the country have been gripped with a moral panic that water assets are being ripped from the grasp of local communities by Big Government. Deep misgivings have also been expressed about the alleged perils of co-governance.

On that last point…any alternative formula by which councils presumed to re-negotiate water rights with Maori as the councils see fit, would be over-turned by the courts. Those rights are now set in stone. The inclusion of Maori representation in the formal management structure has to be treated as a given, despite National’s attempts to use Three Waters as a backdoor way of rewriting the Treaty partnership, and thereby winning itself a few extra votes from the rednecks.

Priming the Pump

At the risk of repetition, New Zealand is facing a reality where an estimated 43 out of 67 local councils currently lack the resources to cover the operational costs of their water infrastructure. Many are already living close to – or beyond – their debt limits. Obviously, they can’t borrow the extra funds needed to fix and future proof their crumbling water systems against the threats posed by climate change, and most of them can’t reasonably ask any more of their ratepayers.

Moreover, and despite the flurries of rhetoric, some of these councils can’t share their resources either, in order to achieve the efficiencies of scale required for borrowing purposes. Even if this sharing was possible to be separated out on the balance sheets – and it wouldn’t be – how many councils would really want, or could conceivably afford, to take on the burden of a faltering neighbour whose pipes are in even worse shape?

The current symptoms of systemic decay will be familiar to anyone not ideologically committed to living in denial. We’ve all seen the headlines about the burst water pipes in Wellington, the elevated lead levels and boil-your-water warnings in Dunedin, the excessive nitrites in Christchurch’s drinking water, and the deaths in Havelock North.

Yet regardless, the moral panic has raged on, and has now led to a political backdown. Yesterday, the government announced its concessions on water reform. The four “mega-entities” that were formerly envisaged as being ideal to manage the water needs of a country of only 5 million people, will now be increased to ten. (New Zealand does seem to operate a pretty low bar for when entities are deemed to have become “ mega.” Shades of Oklahoma and skyscrapers more than seven stories high. Imagine.)

Picking up the Tab

This concession to local representation will cause an increase in the cost of the borrowing. On average, ratepayers will also be paying more than under the original model.

That’s right. Ultimately, it will be the public who will end up paying the price for what their local representatives have been so loudly demanding. The new found zeal that some mayors are showing for their water assets is touching. For decades, the infrastructure for our drinking water, wastewater and stormwater has more often been treated as a liability, than as an asset.

This long history of neglect can be blamed on short-sighted politicians wanting to woo ratepayers with their stern commitment to thrift over a three year electoral cycle. In the process, the community’s longer term needs on water reform have been kicked down the road. Few local councils have been willing – or able – to ask their ratepayers to fork up the funds required to meet our 21st century water needs.

Come the Three Waters reforms though and many of these same local body politicos have seized the chance to pose as the champions of the people. As columnist Brian Fallow once pointed out, many of the government’s critics in local government have suddenly begun acting like so many Gollums, by clutching their suddenly “precious” water assets to their chests in the name of local democracy.

In reality, ownership has never been at risk. Whether there be four or ten entities, the community water assets will still be owned by local councils on behalf of the public, but the entities managing those resources will be kept operationally and financially independent.

Why? Partly to reduce the cost of borrowing, but also to ensure that the investment in and delivery of quality water standards does actually happen.

Predictably, opposition politicians have claimed that this week’s revamp has been only a PR attempt to sell a “broken model.” Yet so far, National has chosen not to reveal any detailed numbers on what its alternative approach would cost.

On one point, everyone does seems agreed. The current reliance on council-driven water management has been a model that’s been broken for decades. Reform is essential, and the government plan – while imperfect – still looks like the most credible – and least costly – option on offer.

Cool Water

Amid all the great songs about water, Bob Nolan’s hymn about the slaking of thirst is still the standout. Written by Nolan in 1936, this is the hit version recorded in 1947. Via their sublime harmonies, the Sons of the Pioneers manage to convey the notion that cool drinkable water is both a collective asset and a personal blessing, amid a hostile world.