3 Mar 2023

Week in Politics: The trigger was co-governance, Campbell says

2:58 pm on 3 March 2023
Rob Campbell Te Whatu Ora - Health New Zealand chairperson

Rob Campbell who lost two jobs this week. Photo: LDR / Supplied

Analysis - National's alternative to Three Waters begs the big question: Who will pay? Rob Campbell describes being sacked from both his public service roles as "Muldoonism in action" and Police Commissioner Andrew Coster explains why Prime Minister Chris Hipkins wrongly minimised a law and order incident on the flood-stricken East Coast.

National has criticised the government's Three Waters policy since it was announced, vowing to repeal it if it wins the October election.

It's been challenged to say what it would do, and last weekend leader Christopher Luxon put up his party's alternative.

National would replace it with a sustainable system for drinking water, stormwater and wastewater - which would remain in local control, RNZ reported.

It would set strict water quality standards and require councils to invest in the ongoing maintenance of their vital infrastructure, and councils would have to have a clear plan for that investment.

It would establish a Water Infrastructure Regulator to set up and enforce standards, and councils would have to ring-fence money for water infrastructure and not spend it on anything else.

That was it, and it appeared designed to meet the main complaint from councils and ratepayers about Three Waters, which was that councils would lose control of infrastructure in which billions had been invested over many years.

And by leaving councils in control, it would avoid the co-governance issue that has bedevilled the government's proposal to create four huge water entities.

But it begged the question - who would pay?

"Quite what National was thinking in releasing its version of a Three Waters policy without addressing the costs or the impact on ratepayers is baffling," the New Zealand Herald's political editor Claire Trevett said.

"National's solution appeared to be more of a political response to try to capitalise on the backlash to Labour's plan than a considered look at what was actually needed and what would work."

The cost has been estimated at $285 billion over several decades and the councils don't have any money to spare as it is.

To raise it they would have to dramatically increase rates, which they wouldn't want to do because they could be voted out of office, or borrow it - if they were able to.

Reaction to National's plan continued through this week and one of the first out of the blocks was New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom.

He told RNZ it ignored the fact that many councils were at their credit limits, while Buller District Mayor Jamie Cleine said "the investment required is huge… somebody has to pay and ultimately it'll be ratepayers".

Hipkins told Morning Report National's alternative would barely change the status quo.

"There's no costing associated with it, which is a pretty fundamental thing that you're supposed to do when you're putting out a major policy like that," he said. "People need to know how much it's going to cost and who's going to pay."

The only conclusion people could draw was that it would be ratepayers, he said, and that would mean significant increases across the country.

Luxon was asked precisely this question on Newshub's AM Show.

"The biggest thing with this whole issue has been the financing, how the councils actually pay for it," host Ryan Bridges said.

Luxon responded: "What we want to do is we want councils to be able to access what's called long-term debt funding. They are going to be paying for these assets a little bit every year over time, and these assets last typically 30 to 50 years.

"It's no different, say, to you trying to buy a house. If councils can get access to that funding they can actually fund the future."

Luxon said councils could come together to form regionally-controlled council organisations which would be able to borrow money.

Questioned further, he said ratepayers "might pay slightly more" if their council had not managed their infrastructure well in the past.

Campbell makes a stand over co-governance

National's plan was at the centre of another of this week's big stories for an entirely different reason - Health New Zealand chair Rob Campbell was sacked for criticising it and also lost his job as chair of the Environmental Protection Authority.

Campbell said on a LinkedIn post National's policy was a thinly-disguised "dog whistle on co-governance", RNZ reported.

He went on to target Luxon, writing: "Christopher Luxon might be able to rescue his party from stupidity on climate change but rescuing this from a well he has dug himself might be harder".

The co-governance reference was to Māori involvement envisaged in the government's Three Waters policy. Interpreting what it means has caused endless problems and, as reported in this column last week, the government has stopped talking about it while it reviews the whole plan.

Campbell should not have said what he did because public servants must be politically neutral and the rule is there for an obvious reason. They must be able to continue in their roles when there is a change of government, otherwise the public service would be tipped over every time it happens.

Hipkins' initial response was that the comments were "inappropriate" and fell well outside the code of conduct for board members of Crown entities.

He said Health Minister Ayesha Verrall was handling it.

National was, naturally, piling in demanding Campbell be sacked.

Verrall was indeed handling it, and she didn't hang around.

"She said 'you have a choice between resigning or I will sack you by 10.30am'," Campbell said on TVNZ's Breakfast programme.

He didn't resign and Verrall issued a statement: "I no longer have confidence that Mr Campbell is able to exercise the political neutrality for his role at Te Whatu Ora. I have decided to exercise my power under Section 36 of the Crown Entities Act to remove him from this role, effective immediately."

Environment Minister David Parker sacked Campbell from his role as chair of the EPA. Both Verrall and Parker acted on advice from Public Services Commissioner Peter Hughes.

The outcome had been inevitable since the moment Hipkins said Campbell's comments were inappropriate.

The surprising thing was that Campbell didn't seem to think so.

He told Newshub he didn't regret his comments and had nothing to apologise for.

"The bit I probably regret most about this is the term 'thinly disguised'," he said.

"I don't think it was very disguised. I think it was a clear message that they would be eliminating any element of co-governance."

In comments on other media outlets, Campbell said being politically neutral didn't mean being politically neutered, and that he had made the comments in his private capacity.

Stuff's political editor Luke Malpass said Campbell should have known what was coming.

"His comments were made in a way and on an issue that seriously lacked judgement for someone chairing a Crown agency," Malpass said.

"He defended his actions saying that the comments were made as a private citizen and that he was meant to be politically neutral not neutered. But Campbell has been around a long time and chaired a lot of things. He must have known, at some level, that that wouldn't fly".

Malpass thought Campbell might have suffered "an affliction common to many baby boomers and non-digital natives that anything you say on the Internet can be determined as private if you say so. It cannot.

"Nowadays, it is barely different from going on the TV news and claiming that you are expressing views as a private citizen."

Malpass said Campbell had to go because Labour couldn't afford the impression that the wider apparatus of government was stacked with anti-National mates.

After losing both jobs Campbell was under no restraints and told media he didn't think the sackings actually had much to do with what he posted on LinkedIn.

"I can say things now I could not say when I was a public servant, so I'll say them," he told RNZ.

"The only disagreement I ever had with Minister Verrall was about a request to tone down my public statements about Te Aka Whai Ora (the Māori Health Authority) and the role of Māori in health governance.

He said his only disagreement with Parker had been related to a similar matter regarding the work of Nga Kaihautu Tikanga Taiao, the Māori advisory group at the EPA.

Campbell's conclusion was that the trigger point was co-governance.

"The government is clearly trying to walk backwards on the public prominence of co-governance issues and they don't like me promoting those so I think it's pretty clear what this issue is about," he said.

Campbell likened it to when then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon attacked him in Parliament, calling him a communist and a dangerous subversive.

"The way I feel about this is exactly the same way, this feels to me like Muldoonism in action," he said.

Old information leads to apology to - and from - the PM

The prime minister continued his trips to the cyclone-ravaged East Coast this week, and explained that when commenting on crime in the area he had relied on what turned out to be out-of-date information from police

Hipkins had continually downplayed claims of a crime spike, despite road workers telling police they had guns pulled on them, RNZ reported.

Media reported the incident but when Hipkins was asked about it he said there had been only "third or fourth hand accounts" of it.

The Herald spoke to Police Commissioner Andrew Coster about that.

Coster said it was his understanding that when officers attended and spoke to a person managing the roadworks late on 17 February it was agreed more information would be provided to police about the incident, and as such was not recorded by officers.

However, that didn't occur until after Hipkins was briefed on 20 February and it was following that briefing that Hipkins made his comments.

Coster also revealed there was insufficient information to identify the people who threatened the roadworkers with guns and the investigation would only continue if more details were provided.

The report said Coster had apologised to Hipkins, and Stuff said Hipkins had apologised to the roadworkers.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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