If it did not already have a name, Havelock North might accurately be called Remuera South.

What the Hastings District plan somewhat old-fashionably describes as a “dormitory suburb” housing people who work in Hastings, Napier or elsewhere in Hawkes Bay now has a population of more than 13,000.

Despite that, long-time inhabitants still refer to their home town as the “The Village”.

That is increasingly a myth, but one the local business association is glad to perpetuate in its material promoting the town. Such advertising of the idyllic offers a point of difference from the multiple attractions of busy Napier, Havelock North’s prime competition for the tourist dollar.

Some dormitory suburb; some village.

Having an address in Havelock — the locals also drop the “North” bit — has long been regarded as an indicator that you have arrived.

The plush homes that pepper the hills above the town — and which enjoy panoramic views across the Heretaunga Plains and Hastings — are testimony to the wealth of the town’s inhabitants.

Those who enjoy upward mobility are not necessarily granted admission to the local nobility, however.

Old money matters here more than flash money.

In the unlikely event of a class war breaking out in New Zealand, then Havelock North would be one of the first battlegrounds.

The less well-heeled citizens of Hastings consider their plutocratic brethren in Havelock North to be a bunch of class obsessed phonies suffering from a misguided superiority complex.

But Hastings has long projected an unappetizing image of a city downtrodden.

That has been the case ever since the Labour Party’s free-market policies ripped the guts out of the local economy back in the 1980s.

Two large labour-intensive freezing works were shut down. Likewise other factories, such as fruit and vegetable processing plants, which had provided what was then well-paid seasonal employment for the unskilled.

Labour’s flirtation with far-right economic theory was brief. The damage inflicted by that party’s betrayal of the very people who had remained loyal through thick and thin is still palpable nearly in another dormitory suburb of Hastings more than three decades later.

You won’t find East Flaxmere mentioned in any tourist brochures.

According to an index derived from data produced by Otago University, this urban area is a member of a not-so-exclusive club suffering the worst extremes of social deprivation in the country.

The gap between the rich and poor is widening in New Zealand. But in Hawkes Bay, it has been a chasm for quite some time.

According to the last census in 2013, more than 42 per cent of those living on the Havelock Hills were earning more than $50,000 a year.

In East Flaxmere, there were less than 10 per cent in that category.

A product of the 1960’s, East Flaxmere was built some way out of Hastings on the stones of dried up riverbeds to avoid more and more of some of the most fertile land in the North Island being gobbled up by state housing.

Such town planning restrictions on the housing of the poor do not seem have been applied with the same enthusiasm when it came to house construction in Havelock North.

The town has expanded regardless. The demand for up-market homes has been boosted by virtue of many of Hawkes Bay’s landed gentry living out their retirement years in Havelock North after the time comes to hand over the running of the family farm or station to their heirs.

These aging members of the Hawkes Bay aristocracy pay big money to buy roomy townhouses on small, manageable sections or to purchase villas in one of the town’s retirement villages which are mushrooming like tipsy.

Havelock North is a market leader in something else. No less than three private boarding schools are located within the town boundary. They cater for the agrarians In the rural hinterland of Hawkes Bay and beyond.

If their children gain no other qualification, incarceration in these institutions means their progeny usually exit with a Lord or Lady Snooty accent at the very least.

That is something which can take you far, though not as far as it once could.

Over the past two weeks or so, however, the English twang previously encountered in the town centre’s fashion boutiques, other specialist shops and cafes has metamorphosed into a not-always silent scream.

Privilege counts for nothing when your water-supply is contaminated with a vicious gastro bug. It is not picky about its victims.

Third world-type epidemics simply do not happen in well-to-do boroughs like Havelock North. Safe water is a given. That is why the town’s inhabitants pay higher rates than the hoi polloi down on the flat. End of story. It might happen in East Flaxmere. But Havelock North? Never. Ever.

It will be of absolutely no comfort to those 4000 or so residents struck down by water-borne campylobacter in the town’s supply and those caring for them that they are not alone.

The number of cases in New Zealand of endemic drinking-waterborne gastrointestinal disease has been estimated to be between 18,000 to 34,000 annually. In most instances, the number of cases is small. Many are not reported to health authorities,which is why the estimates vary so much.

However, New Zealand has not witnessed an outbreak on Havelock North’s scale since one in Queenstown in 1984 when an estimated 3,500 people were afflicted.

Unlike Havelock North, the cause was easily traced to a sewer overflow that discharged sewage into a creek which entered Lake Whakatipu within 200 metres of the water intake for Queenstown’s then untreated supply.

In 2012, more than 400 people in the Canterbury town of Darfield became ill with campylobacteriosis following heavy rains, contamination of water with animal effluent from nearby paddocks and failures in the treatment of drinking water which led to pathogens being distributed through the town’s water supply.

Again ,that is cold comfort for Havelock North’s residents who must be asking why such incidents continue to occur more than three decades after the Queenstown outbreak.

Their initial fury at what has happened will be replaced by a steely resolve to ensure those responsible for this calamity are made to pay for it one way or another.

This town’s residents are not people who take no for an answer. They will not be fobbed by public relations film-flam..

That is indicated by the talk of the Hastings District Council being obliged to compensate local retailers and other businesses suffering a drastic downturn in cash-flow — and their taking a class action against the council if it doesn’t

Those are not just empty threats. And the council knows it.
The mayor, Lawrence Yule, is not the only politician very much under the hammer, however.

The local MP, National’s Craig Foss, had looked more frazzled by the day. No doubt he has been ear-bashed almost to death by the locals.

Yesterday’s  announcement that the Goverment and the council will each contribute $100,000 to a promotional fund to resuscitate the village’s reputation as a regional destination for tourists and other would-be vIsitors could not have come too soon for Foss.
Meanwhile, Inland  Revenue has been told to waive interest on any late PAYE, provisional tax and GST payments which have fallen due for local businesses.

Neither move amounts to compensation for loss of business. But no government of any hue would want to set what could end up being an expensive precedent which could result in Cabinet ministers feeling obliged to shell out money every time calamity strikes.

With emotions running so high in the town, other politicians have been loath to exploit the anger for fear of copping a backlash for playing politics with people’s health.

Labour did force a snap debate in Parliament. But that happened because of procedural ineptitude on National’s part.

For some inexplicable reason, National failed to deliver a ministerial statement to Parliament at the first opportunity to inform the House of what had happened in Havelock North and what was being done to remedy it.

That would have negated any granting of a snap debate. But National’s blunder left Speaker David Carter no choice.

Given the scale of the outbreak, there has otherwise been a relative drought of the usual flood of press statements and questions in Parliament that are generated by such calamities.

Labour has instead had much fun taunting Health Minister Jonathan Coleman for once saying “we don’t have these terrible water-borne epidemics in New Zealand”.

There are other reasons why Opposition parties have been so quiet.

All the blame is being directed at the council. Nothing has yet emerged to cast the Government in a bad light.

Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First will have to wait until the debate widens and questions start being asked about drinking water standards across other parts of New Zealand.

There are few votes to be gained in the interim. The party vote for National in Havelock North at the last election was of landslide proportions.

If you add National and Labour’s vote together and ignore other parties, then National’s share of that two-party vote is close to 80 per cent.

The overwhelming majority of these voters back National out of habit.

A fair chunk will be National Party members. If they have a gripe or think National has done the wrong thing, they will say so, but only behind the closed doors of party meetings.

Foss could be in a bit of trouble. But his survival will more likely hinge on the strength of the Labour vote elsewhere in his Tukituki electorate.

What is clearer is that the Government’s somewhat haphazard response to the crisis in Havelock North is an example of the fatal mix of complacency and weariness starting to rot the administration from within.

National appeared to forget a fundamental law of New Zealand politics. No matter how big or small the problem and no matter who else might be responsible, that problem always ends up landing on the desk of the relevant Cabinet minister in some form or other to sort out.

Sooner or later comes the public cry demanding to know “what is the Government going to do about it”.

That is how it has always been. It is a simple fact of political life. Any politician who ignores that reality does so at his or her peril.

Even if you are not doing very much in actuality, it is therefore vital that you appear to be doing something.

John Key and his Cabinet colleagues have generally been very good at doing just that.

But National’s usually slick damage-control machine went on the blink.
By the Monday of last week the vast extent of the gastro outbreak was already painfully clear.

The Prime Minister merely stated the obvious by declaring that the presence of a gastro bug in a town’s water supply was “not acceptable”. He promised an inquiry into what had gone wrong. Later in the week, he confirmed the inquiry would be independent.

But there was little information regarding exactly how central government was helping on the ground.

With the whole of Havelock North collectively holding a gun to the Council’s head, however, maybe National thought there was no good reason to become too involved and risk making itself a target or suffering collateral damage by being seen

This was a local government problem, not central government’s responsibility. And that was the way it was going to stay.

There has been some criticism that the Government did not declare a formal state of emergency.

But the powers that become available through such are mostly simple common sense and were already being actioned by authorities in Hawkes Bay.

Coleman made the correct decision. Whether it was the correct decision politically is a moot point.

National might have handled things rather differently had he been in the country when the outbreak first occurred.

But Coleman was in Rio de Janeiro in his other capacity as Sports minister.

The associate health minister Sam Lotu-liga was delegated as acting health minister.
A Cabinet minister since 2014, Lotu-liga failed to take firm control of the tricky Corrections portfolio and was replaced after little more than 12 months in the job.

He was instead given responsibility for Local Government, a portfolio assumed to be so innocuous that even he could not get into any trouble.

But sometimes fate intervenes in politics and ruins even the most clever and cunning political stratagems.

Lotu-liga failed to get on the front foot to show the Government was maximizing its efforts to contain the water crisis and slow to make the usual visit to the affected area as a symbol of the Government’s concern.

Fortunately for him and National, all of the blame for the campylobacter outbreak is currently being firmly sheeted home to the Hastings District Council.

This was an accident waiting to happen.

It should have been obvious that the now infamous Brookvale bores had major problems.

Bacterial contamination of the town’s water was discovered in 2013 and 2015.

In both cases, the supply was immediately chlorinated. Residents were told there was no health risk.

But alarm bells should have been ringing when the Ministry of Health’s monitoring of drinking water quality gave Havelock North a fail in the 2013-14 year when it over-shot the required standard for levels of bacteria in the supply.

The ministry said “remedial action” had been taken. In the following year, the Havelock North supply got the big tick as being okay.

But the forced closure of one of the Brookvale bores suggested something was seriously amiss.

The latest instance has seen the council scramble all of its public relations resources to grasp tightly any credibility it might still retain.

Yule and the chief executive Ross McLeod have acknowledged the council’s failure and issued their “sincere apologies”. The pair have thrown themselves into the lion’s den by calling two public meetings next week.

Those will be the best indicator of whether the town’s residents have lost all trust in the council and no longer have any confidence in its assurances.

This week’s bickering between Yule’s council and the Hawkes Bay Regional Council, however, is about the last straw. It will have only intensified public despair in what are openly dysfunctional relations between the two arms of local government.

The tit-for-tat behavior says only one thing: that those partaking are more concerned with covering their butts than acting in the public interest.

Regardless, Yule should have stepped down long before now and announced he was not contesting October’s local body elections.

At the very most, he should only stay in the job until the new mayor is elected so that there is some continuity while pressing matters surrounding the water supply are rectified.

Even if he is re-elected, Yule will be a lame-duck mayor until the independent inquiry established by the Government presents its report.

Given the council is most unlikely to end up smelling of roses when the inquiry’s findings become public, he may well have to go at that point anyway.

That inquiry’s terms of reference require it to determine the cause of the current contamination in Havelock North, whether relevant parties complied with their obligations, how local and central government agencies responded, and how to prevent future such occurrences.

The terms of reference go further by instructing the inquiry to also consider “the potential for similar situations to occur in other New Zealand water supplies.”

That goes to the crux of the matter. If Havelock North’s supply was “demonstrably safe” — as the latest version of the previously mentioned Ministry of Health report on drinking water standards attests — how many other councils are literally dicing with death even though monitoring suggests their supply is okay?

Since the Queenstown outbreak, the ministry has put much effort into raising compliance with the standards, including legislation passed in 2007 which declared every network supplier must take “all practicable steps” to comply with drinking water standards.That requirement falls short of compulsion.

Despite that, National still opposed to the-then Labour Government’s legislation, saying there was no evidence of a clear link between drinking water supplies and the majority of the cases of gastro-intestinal infections.

Try telling that now to the thousands of people in Havelock North who became sick after drinking water which from their taps.

Coleman was National’s associate spokesman when he made his emphatic, but extremely rash declaration regarding New Zealand and water-borne epidemics.

This week the now Health minister accused Labour of deliberately not providing the full context in which he had made the remark when speaking during a parliamentary debate on that legislation which became the Health (Drinking Water) Amendment Act.

Coleman added that all that had occurred a long time and, at the time, his comments were “absolutely correct”.

They weren’t then and they aren’t now.

But Coleman’s statement says an awful lot when it comes to explaining National’s on-going refusal since regaining power in the year following the enactment of Labour’s reforms to put real pressure on local authorities and make them lift their game.

Estimates as to how much it would currently cost to ensure suitable water treatment across the whole country are hard to find.

But reports produced for the Ministry of Health by a number of private consultants a decade or so ago contained figures ranging from around $250 million to more than $400 million.

In the interim, other ministry-commissioned reports have ascertained that as many as 770,000 New Zealanders are drinking water which does not comply with current bacteriological and protozoal standards.

That is not altogether surprising in rural areas, small settlements and townships.

What is shocking is that nearly 300,000 people live in cities or towns with populations of more than 10,000 and which have non-compliant water treatment plants.

The independent inquiry into the Havelock North schemozzle will consider the potential for similar situations to occur in other New Zealand water supplies and the lessons for local and central government agencies — and thus whether the relevant regulations are operating effectively.

But while the inquiry will be charged with determining the cause of the Havelock North outbreak, its terms of reference would seem to preclude it from conducting a wholesale review of all potential factors lowering the quality of drinking water across New Zealand.

That was made absolutely clear by the Prime Minister in Parliament on Tuesday.
The Greens co-leader Metiria Turei asked Key why land use was not specified in the terms of reference when it was well known that intensive agriculture was linked to declining water quality and, therefore, could be a factor in this outbreak.

He replied that the terms of reference were very broad, but not to an extent that suited the Greens’ political agenda.

Turei is right. Unless the inquiry examines all possible factors which could cause future contaminations — such as the intensification of dairy farming — its work risks being incomplete.

But this inquiry is just that — an inquiry, not a royal commission.

As the leader of a major party representing rural interests, Key can hardly afford to sanction the kind of review the Greens are demanding.

His fear will be that in setting up the inquiry, National could be opening enough of a Pandora’s box as it is.

But National will have only itself to blame if the inquiry cites central government as complicit in causing the nightmare in Havelock North.

There is a mile-high pile of reports written by hordes of scientists and other experts in recent years dealing with New Zealand’s water quality. Only a few of those documents make for good reading.

National cannot argue it wasn’t warned.

If that sounds familiar, look no further than National’s increasing proclivity for postponing the really hard decisions, be it a capital gains tax to halt sky-rocketing house prices, the unsustainability of current state pension entitlements or protecting water, that most vital of all resources, from pollution or excessive exploitation by its biggest users.


One thought on “Something’s in the water; something’s astray in the Bay

  1. Good article. Provincial towns like the one I live in in Northland – One Tree Point – have had to boil t their drinking water or install special (and ultra expensive) filters, or catch rain water, forever. (I have been here for twenty years and am still boiling away.) While we sympathise with Havelock North, at least the problem attracts political attention and in time will be fixed. Our situation has no end in sight. We simply have water in our taps that is way below WHO drinking standards. “Sorry guys, you are in Norhland, get used to it.”


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