New Zealand

Labour needs Nanaia Mahuta to go, but she’s too powerful

December 8, 2022 12:00 pm

The pressure on Jacinda Ardern to sack Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta is building.

But Mahuta is too powerful within the Labour Party to get rid of easily.

The Three Waters reforms have become one of the Labour Government’s greatest liabilities.

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While there is widespread consensus on the need for significant reform of water infrastructure, including from opposition political parties and local government, the specific reforms the Government have dogmatically pursued remain unconvincing to most, if not downright offensive to many.

Poll after poll has shown that the public are opposed to the reforms.

While everyone wants to see water fixed, the Minister has presented a reform programme that has been botched from the start.

Mahuta has failed to convince the public of all the contentious elements of the reforms – from co-governance element through to legal entrenchment of the anti-privatisation provisions.

Mahuta’s entrenchment debacle

The entrenchment drama has really made clear that Mahuta is a power unto herself in the Labour Government, and beyond reproach by Ardern.

Although murkiness remains over exactly how and why Labour ended up pushing through the constitutionally objectionable and anti-democratic entrenchment provisions for Three Waters, there is now little doubt that Mahuta was driving the change.

Mahuta’s demeanor in the aftermath of the entrenchment scandal will be infuriating her colleagues.

After all, she has been publicly blaming everyone else in the party but herself for the botch-up.

The chain of events over the entrenchment is now becoming a bit clearer, with the obvious conclusion that Mahuta caused this problem for Labour, and seemingly defied the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and breached the Cabinet Manual – normally all sackable offences.

Cabinet made a clear decision not to entrench any of the Three Waters legislation, especially after they were made aware of the official advice that this would be unconstitutional and dangerous.

Mahuta appears to have conspired with the Green Party to bring in a last-minute amendment during parliamentary urgency to do just this.

It appears that Mahuta, as the Minister responsible for getting the legislation passed, and working with Green MP Eugenie Sage, then choose not to inform any of her colleagues of what was planned and what this would mean.

By design or otherwise, it appears that she neglected to inform the Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins who is the Leader of the House, and Attorney General David Parker that she was arranging for the Government to vote in the anti-democratic entrenchment provision that Cabinet had decided against.

Since then, Ardern has given cover to Mahuta by explaining to the public that it was a “mistake” made collectively by “the team” rather than Mahuta.

But Mahuta herself has spurned that spin and thrown both the PM and other colleagues under the bus by speaking out publicly with a different story.

Mahuta has made it very clear that the vote wasn’t a misunderstanding, as the Prime Minister has tried to suggest, but a conscious attempt to bolster the reforms.

She also pointed out that the entrenchment issue had actually been discussed at a caucus meeting. What’s more, she pointed out that Labour MPs had plenty of forewarning of the Green Party’s entrenchment amendment, suggesting that her colleagues, and especially those on the related select committee, should have read the material produced about the bill outlining the details of the entrenchment issue.

As the Herald’s deputy political editor Thomas Coughlan writes today, “Mahuta turned on her caucus, even as they closed ranks to defend her”.

Coughlan argues that Ardern has bent over backwards to prevent Mahuta being blamed for the debacle, but Mahuta has spurned such help, publicly contradicting the PM on the issue, which has only inflamed divisions within Labour. Coughlan says: “Mahuta openly diverged from the Prime Minister, treating the press gallery to a spectacle more reminiscent of the National Party circa 2020-21 than the modern Labour Party.”

The Local Government Minister has also made clear that she knew of the constitutional objections to what they were doing. And as Coughlan argues today, it was Mahuta’s responsibility to proactively inform her colleagues what they were voting for in entrenching the Three Waters provisions.