Three Waters dominates at Local Government NZ conference, but Jacinda Ardern dogged by mask controversy

Hundreds of Local Government leaders have descended on Palmerston North for the annual Local Government NZ conference.

The hottest topic, of course, was Three Waters. But there was another controversy that took centre stage: the Prime Minister not wearing a mask while posing for a photo in a crowd indoors.

The rain was pouring in Palmerston North on Wednesday, but it didn't dampen the spirits of those protesting outside this year's Local Government New Zealand conference.

The group is angry over the Government's Three Waters reforms.

"Three Waters is a disaster," one protester said.

The topic was also dominating conversations inside the venue, with Central Hawke's Bay Mayor Alex Walker saying "you cannot avoid it", and Lower Hutt Mayor Campbell Berry telling Newshub "it does take up a lot of council's time".

Walker is worried her smaller rural towns will get left behind when water governance becomes more centralised. 

'We have remote communities like Pōrangahau on the coast, they're really worried that they won't get responsiveness from a really big entity."

Lower Hutt's mayor says things have gotten out of hand, both with the country's water and the water debate.

"My approach has always been to get around the table and try and make it better. Because the status quo, is not an option," said Berry. 

But Three Waters wasn't the controversy that dogged the Prime Minister on Wednesday.

Instead, it was her decision to post a photo to her 1.7 million Instagram followers, unmasked, standing in a crowd of more than 100 indoors. It was on the same day the Ministry of Health rolled out a campaign to encourage more masking.

"I accept the point we are role models. We will time-to-time make mistakes but we are ultimately still role models," Ardern said. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark also weighed in with a tweet asking, "What on earth are they thinking. NZ is in the middle of a pandemic surge".

Ardern's former deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters was even stronger, tweeting "Define Hypocrisy".

Ardern said she is asked from time to time "to take my mask off for photos". 

"In the future, I'll be more vigilant about politely declining". 

There was no apology for the post, but a tightening up of her own masking habits.