Bill Ralston: The pandemic has distracted us from politics


Magicians use techniques of distraction designed to divert your attention from the way they are performing their tricks. For the past 18 months, New Zealanders have been well and truly distracted from politics by Covid-19. Our eyes are focused on the pandemic rather than changes the administration seems determined to ram through.

For example, we might be obsessively concerned with the state of our own individual health but few of us have seriously considered the state of the country’s health system as the Government moves to replace 20 district health boards with one overall national healthcare agency administering a handful of combined former DHBs.

We currently elect our own local representatives to the various DHBs; we can hold them to account and talk to them. I’m not sure that an unelected Wellington-based healthcare agency bureaucrat is going to want to talk with us in quite the same way.

The Government has already combined and amalgamated regionally based polytechnics. Here, too, it seems intent on greater centralisation at the expense of local control.

To solve the housing crisis, the Government plans to mandatecouncils in our five biggest cities to allow three-storey dwellings on about half the properties in suburbia. Once upon a time, you may have been able to complain about such planning issues; not any more. The National Party signed up with Labour to that bright idea, leaving only Act’s David Seymour to plaintively point out this would effectively allow an 8m-high wall to be erected just 1m from your property and “you have no right to say anything about it”.

To solve problems with water matters, the Government is removing councils from direct control of their water assets and giving management of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater to a few new super agencies controlled by very indirectly appointed council representatives, who legally must share power 50:50 with iwi appointees.

You won’t be surprised to hear that at least 60 of the affected 67 councils have expressed strong opposition to or concern about the move, which makes them several steps removed from the ability to manage the very expensive assets they own but have no rights over.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta seems unimpressed at the reaction to her sleight of hand, which is about to effectively remove billions of dollars of assets from the hands of the councils (and the people) who actually own the infrastructure.

And the ownership of water itself? Helen Clark, with the Seabed and Foreshore legislation of 2004, staked out the principle of public ownership of the Queens Chain on the ocean where, of course, stormwater and wastewater usually end up. Subsequently replacing that law, John Key declared “no-one owns water”.

The question of ownership of water has been a minefield for governments for the past couple of decades and continues to be so. Opponents of the Three Waters changes say it is a blatant grab by Maoridom to claim control of the country’s water supplies. On the Seabed and Foreshore Act, Clark could afford to ignore the defection from Labour of Tariana Turia because her majority was sufficient. Interestingly, Nanaia Mahuta also voted against that bill but did not quit the party.

This time around, the Labour Māori caucus of 15 MPs have the numbers to insist the Government must listen to them.

A Taxpayers’ Union poll showed 56 per cent opposed to Three Waters, 19 per cent in support, and a whopping 24 per cent “unsure”. That last figure probably shows the effect of folk being distracted by Covid-19. Once the pandemic is over, expect one hell of a row over all of these issues.

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