Paul Majurey: Māori involvement in Three Waters reform will benefit all


When it comes to something as precious as water, there are wide ranging world views, and that is as it should be. As an iwi representative and environmental lawyer I have seen over the years how diverse interests can debate, negotiate and more often than not reconcile seemingly diametrically opposed perspectives.

Water is, of course, essential to all cultures and crucial for socio-economic wellbeing. In the Māori world view, water is fundamental to our identity – it is embedded in our whakapapa connections and in our language (including over a dozen classifications of water), and inherent in the customary rights recognised by Te Tiriti o Waitangi and in common law.

It has been a common theme in my nearly four decades of legal work for iwi/hapū, community groups, environmental organisations, and national and international corporates. Water has also been a familiar topic at the governance boards on which I have served – public, corporate, iwi and co-governance fora.

Water is intrinsic to the identity and culture of the Marutūāhu tribes to whom I belong. Whether it’s the fresh waters of our shared ancestral rivers, or the salt waters these rivers refresh of our shared ancestral seas, including Tīkapa Moana/Hauraki Gulf and the Waitematā. As part of our Treaty settlement redress, we will have a place on a range co-governance bodies for our shared moana and awa.

So it is throughout the motu. All tribes have their ancestral waters, many participate in co-governance entities with local government, and there will be more in the years to come. These arrangements are found in many regions and across large and small river catchments. Importantly, in the political context, they were all established with cross-party support – well-known examples included the Waikato River and Whanganui River.

What these arrangements have in common is that they recognise that we all benefit when Māori have their voice at the decision-making table. Rather than the sky falling when the Treaty partner participates, these arrangements have materially improved the governance and management of water. They bring a missing dimension – the indigenous world views.

This brings me to the work the Government has under way with councils, communities and iwi throughout Aotearoa on its proposed Three (Toru) Waters reform. The proposal is to transfer the drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure services from the 61 authorities and create four completely new entities to undertake this role.

The economic and political merits or otherwise of the reforms are for others to debate, but the point to stress is that the role of iwi in the governance of these new water authorities is not something to fear. Sadly, some claim it is.

Such proposals are attracting the trope of Māori “privilege” or “elites” getting special treatment. The debate is characterised as a zero-sum game. One seat for Māori on a board table is one less for the community, and so is claimed to be unfair or to amount to separatism. One recent NBR contributor argued the Government is indulging a “sectional political constituency at the expense of the principles of democracy and the community”.

The underlying premise for such commentary may hark back to a time of unchecked colonial override, but it is well settled law among all branches of our government that Māori have customary and Treaty rights to water. We were guaranteed “te tino rangatiratanga” over our lands, property and taonga. Water in all its forms and places is a taonga, and no serious commentator would suggest otherwise.

There can also be little dispute that the reform of New Zealand’s water governance and management is long overdue. Public health failures, catchment over-allocations and uneven cost structures are only a few of the major issues our nation faces.

Opponents have also tried to claim the reforms will transfer ownership rights from councils to Iwi. This is wrong, and gratuitous. The proposed legislation will set the parameters of the three waters regime, not change the status quo. There may be a future government seeking to define the contours of water ownership, but that is for another day.

Successful models exist in the co-governance arrangements discussed above. Iwi and local authorities will partner in appointing selection panels who in turn appoint boards. They will significantly influence strategy and set performance expectations. Māori customary rights and interests do not exclude the shared interests of all New Zealanders in clean and safe water. This recognition is at the heart of the Three Waters Reform proposals.

A real issue for the Government to address is the sheer volume of reform under way this term (among others, Three Waters, RMA, Health) and the demands on the time and human resources of iwi, even as we grapple with the impact of Covid-19. A related issue is the capacity of iwi to meaningfully participate in these new regimes.

Although here are academic arguments on whether councils are Treaty partners, in practice the Crown has devolved and delegated many of its Treaty partnership responsibilities to them. Local government has been moving towards a more sophisticated and mature understanding of partnerships with Māori. Again, this is not a zero-sum game. Involving Māori does not deny non-Māori any rights. The two are complementary and mutually inclusive.

The proposed structure of the Three Waters agencies has been designed to give Māori a partnership role in the governance and setting of strategic expectations and performance. No more, no less. Will the world end? On the evidence of the other co-governance regimes overseeing our waterways and other taonga in Aotearoa, it should actually work rather well – for the benefit of all.

– Paul Majurey is chair of Eke Panuku Development Auckland, and Auckland Council CCO. He’s also a iwi leader and environmental lawyer. The views expressed here are personal and independent of that and his other roles.

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