Advertising Standards Authority rules in favour of Government's Three Waters ad despite seven complaints

New Zealand's ad watchdog has ruled in favour of the Government's controversial Three Waters TV commercial despite seven complaints.

The chair of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)'s Complaints Board ruled on August 9 seven complaints about the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) ad for the Three Waters campaign had no grounds to proceed. 

One of the complainants appealed the decision, on the grounds that "appropriate weight was not given" to the issues raised, but the ASA announced on Wednesday the appeal application has been declined.

The ASA said in a statement the ad "fell into the category of advocacy advertising, and, as the identity and position of the advertiser were clear, a more liberal interpretation of the Advertising Standards Code was allowed".

Three Waters is the Government's plan to establish four publicly-owned entities to take responsibility for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater from local councils.

The reforms stem from Havelock North's outbreak of gastroenteritis in 2016 when four people died and 5000 became ill, as well as drought in Auckland and old pipes bursting in Wellington.

Under the Three Waters model, local councils will remain the owners of their water assets but they will not have control over them. Their influence will be via regional representative groups of no more than 12 members. 

These groups - 50 percent council members and 50 percent iwi - will appoint members to the four water entities, who will be independent of councils. 

Despite 60 out of 67 local councils opposing the reforms, according to some councillors, the Government announced in October it would force the reforms on local councils after it was initially pitched as voluntary, sparking anger among mayors. 

The seven complaints to the ASA relate to an ad DIA has been running promoting the reforms. It depicts a man running a bath with what looks like a green substance coming out of the tap until it's fixed by a plumber. 

"Imagine Aotearoa without good water? That'd be rude as, aye? That's why we're working with councils to make sure it doesn't happen for real," the ad's narrator, Thor: Ragnarok actress Rachel House, says. 

"Now, instead of them having to shoulder this burden, we're grouping it together to keep everybody on the path to better all-around water."

When the ad first started playing on TV, then-National leader Judith Collins slammed it as inaccurate, telling Magic Talk: "We've seen a fake news campaign put out there by the Government making out that drinking water is full of mud and all sorts of other sludge."

A DIA spokesperson told Newshub at the time the ad asked people to imagine New Zealand without good water, "rather than seeking to document the current state" of water. 

The ASA received seven official complaints about the ad - including from an unnamed district councillor - describing it as "propaganda", "scaremongering", "full of misinformation", and an "inappropriate use of taxpayer funds".

The ASA "acknowledged the complainants' concerns that the advertisement was scaremongering and misleading and omitted information about the potential impact on rates and council ownership of assets".

But it decided: "In the context of advocacy advertising, the advertisement was not misleading or offensive and did not cause fear or distress without justification."

Why Three Waters?

The Government argues that reforms are necessary.

A report by the Water Industry Commission for Scotland estimated New Zealand needs to invest between $120-$185 billion on water infrastructure over the next 30 years to meet standards and provide for future population growth.

The reforms are expected to grow GDP by $14 billion to $23 billion over the next 30 years and create an estimated 6000 to 9000 jobs. 

The Government tried to make the reforms easier for councils by announcing a whopping $2.5 billion package in July to ensure they were not only "no worse off", but "better off" from the restructure of water assets. 

A key part of the reforms is what's called 'balance sheet separation' which essentially means while the water entities will be owned by the councils, they will be financially independent, so the financial position of councils will have no effect on the financial position of the entities, and vice versa.

Work is underway to establish a working group of local Government, iwi and water industry experts to work through elements of design. The group will work to look at the governance and accountability arrangements of the entities and provide an opportunity for public participation. 

Cabinet has also tasked DIA with establishing a unit to focus on the implementation of the reforms. It will work with local Government, iwi, water industry and other stakeholders to "ensure a smooth transition".