25 Oct 2021

Critics say government Three Waters advertising campaign is 'irresponsible, misleading'

6:27 am on 25 October 2021

Complaints about the government's Three Waters Reform TV adverts have described them as misinformation, untrue and a taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign.

The government is proposing to amalgamate council-owned drinking, waste and stormwater infrastructure and services into four regional bodies.

Three Waters Reform TV advert

The ad campaign. Photo: Supplied

The $3.5 million advertising campaign, which began in June 2021, depicts unhappy cartoon people and animals with poor quality water.

A voiceover says the government is working to make sure Kiwis can keep drinking straight from the tap: "Imagine Aotearoa without good water. That'd be rude as, eh? That's why we're working with councils to make sure it doesn't happen for real. So now, instead of them having to shoulder this burden, we're grouping them together, to keep everybody on the path to better all round water. So our trout will be happy, undies can still be togs, and best of all, us Kiwis can keep drinking straight from the tap, so how about that? Better water is better for everyone."

In another version, the voiceover describes what "a stink as place that would be", how showers would be a complete waste of time and awa (rivers) would be 'all filthy with slime'. The animation included green liquid coming from a "coughing" pipe, with a thermometer in its mouth.

One complainant said it "crosses the line into a propaganda campaign spreading false truths".

Another described it as "scaremongering and full of misinformation. I find it highly offensive. The government are going to use the water assets they have basically stolen from the ratepayer, to raise a $160 billion loan, doubling our national debt".

"The ad suggests that the only way to healthy water and healthy drinking water is this amalgamation process," wrote another complainant. "It seems the ad is intended to ensure that the public puts pressure on councils to take this step, but there is no balancing information provided. The ad seems to me to be an irresponsible, misleading and inappropriate use of taxpayer funds."

Some viewers took issue with the voiceover depiction of the government working with councils so they did not have to 'shoulder the burden' of providing clean water.

"The advertisements are puerile," one said. "It states it will lift a burden from councils and implies the environment will be better with swimmable rivers and better drinking water. It refers to a trout. I am a district councillor and find these advertisements misleading and essentially untrue."

"This ad is very misleading, and I consider it to be little more than propaganda," said another. "The ad states that they are working with councils, which is a blatant lie. The fact is that Three Waters has not been fully set up, or instituted yet. If this is not active, how can they be working with councils to improve water? The answer is, they can't, and the councils I have asked have confirmed this."

The Advertising Standards Authority ruled in the context of advocacy advertising, it was not misleading or offensive.

A total of 48 complaints were made about the adverts.

'Truthful, balanced' campaign - govt

The government said its aim was to build wider support for Three Waters reform.

"The department is satisfied that our campaign is truthful, balanced and not misleading and that it complies with all aspects of the Advertising Standards Code," a spokesperson from the Department of Internal Affairs said.

"As for the cost of the campaign, and based on the current statement of work from our creative agency which sees the public information and education campaign run through until late 2021, the total cost for the campaign across all media channels and platforms is anticipated to be $3.5m."

A further $500,000 was set aside for the development, management and hosting of its website.

Its statement pointed to the Cabinet decision on advertising, which was aimed at providing "a national picture of the case for change, and to build wider support for the reforms".

Councils and iwi have provided feedback to Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta and a final report from officials is due in the coming weeks, after which Cabinet would consider the next steps including a public consultation process.

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