Controversial Three Waters provision heading back to Parliament drawing board

You thought Three Waters was already controversial?

Last week, Parliament voted to include a rare provision to super-protect water ownership from privatisation, creating a new precedent constitutional academics have called "dangerous".

"We don't want overseas companies taking the services," said Green MP Eugenie Sage in the House last week.

"The chances of privatisation, as laid out in this Bill, are virtually nil," said National's Andrew Bayly.

The debate happened in the dead of night as politicians went over screeds of legislation under urgency.

Sage put up an amendment to Three Waters, worried by past experience of energy companies being privatised that the same could happen to our water. 

It led to Labour and the Greens passing what's called an entrenchment provision. It means if a future Government wants to sell a water asset it would need a mega-majority of 60 percent of MPs or a successful referendum to sell off.

"Labour is very, very, very clear. We do not want to see ever the privatisation of water assets," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday. 

"It's a new low from this Labour Government. It's a real challenge to democracy," said National leader Christopher Luxon. 

Entrenching public ownership of water assets was originally Labour's idea. It wanted to use the already established entrenchment power of 75 percent of MPs usually used for constitutional issues, like the voting age. It couldn't get Opposition buy-in so dropped it.

But this new, lower entrenchment threshold now has academics calling it a dangerous precedent that Governments could use willy-nilly.

And the Prime Minister agrees. 

"Here though we saw a more novel use of entrenchment. I do think it's right we go back and discuss with the Parliament its use in this case," she said.

Sage said she doesn't think this will set a precedent "because these Three Waters assets are critical public infrastructure".

Luxon said it's "anti-democratic" to put "entrenchment piece of legislation into something that's not constitutional in nature".

It's not in the constitution, but the Prime Minister says it's not a stuff-up either. 

Asked if the Government was in this mess because it was quickly passing legislation under urgency, Ardern replied simply, "no". 

So it's back to the Parliamentary drawing board because the last thing the Prime Minister wants is for Three Waters to be even more controversial.