Tuesday, 06 October 2020 07:25

Critic calls for a major investigation into freshwater reforms

Written by  Staff Reporters
North Otago sheep and beef farmer Jane Smith says she is not prepared to lean on the gate and let a lack of procedure sneak through. North Otago sheep and beef farmer Jane Smith says she is not prepared to lean on the gate and let a lack of procedure sneak through.

Award-winning, environmentally-focused farmer Jane Smith wonders whether she’s farming in North Otago or North Korea.

She is calling for a full review into the process behind Ministry for the Environment’s (MfE) Fresh Water National Policy Statement – particularly around the recent legislation for winter grazing practices and land use categorised solely on slope.

“The public have been sold a sanitised version of the truth and are going to pay an unacceptable price for what I suggest is effectively an abuse of legislative power,” she told Rural News.

While Smith is opposed to the punitive regulations in their current form, it is the process that she is challenging – rather than the outcome itself. She says her time in a myriad of governance roles have shown the importance of transparency in procedure behind every decision. 

“Anyone running a business knows that if an outcome is a dog’s breakfast, then the process was probably even worse.”

Smith says the blame for the ‘dog’s breakfast’ water reforms can be laid solely at the feet of Environment Minister David Parker.

“This is one man’s attempt to claim a personal legacy and it goes against everything that a supposedly incorrupt democracy stands for,” she adds. 

Smith has sifted through over 100 pages of Official Information Act (OIA) information and suggests that Parker may have gone beyond his ministerial mandate. 

“It is no coincidence that a lot of this OIA material has been highly redacted by the minister himself – this is a sad indictment on democracy.” 

She suggests that the freshwater “debacle” mirrors the pattern of events throughout the recent RMA Reform Bill, where conveniently short timeframes meant no contrary views were able to be aired.

“You can see the power that the minister had over decisions during the RMA Reform Bill process,” Smith told Rural News. “It was noted by MfE itself that: ‘there are risks to proceeding with this change to primary legislation without formal consultation that cannot be adequately mitigated by means of future consultation on a supporting NES’”. 

She adds that a June 11, 2020 MfE Departmental Report evaluating changes introduced via Supplementary Order Paper 517 noted that the freshwater planning proposals only partially meet the quality assessment criteria. ‘Proposals could have been consulted on. Given the significance of water, this limited consultation is considered to be significant. 

While there is an opportunity for these groups to engage through the select committee process for the Bill, this is not on its own considered sufficient to cover the approach to consultation prior to Cabinet decisions.’

Smith believes the “kicker” is that this now provides power to the minister (from 30 June 2020) to “call-in” any plan proposals or consents where the matter could be of “national significance”.

“This is the pathway in which Parker has given himself additional powers to effectively trump council decisions. The extent of his interference in council plan changes has become frightening obvious, the more OIA and LGOIMA (Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act) you read.” 

Smith is also concerned about the level of intrusion that she is seeing in her own backyard in Otago. She believes Parker’s modus operandi will influence plan changes in other regions – even before he pulls out his council ‘call-in’ trump card. 

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OPINION: When I started writing this piece, I was sitting in my Kaiapoi office on a sweltering 30-degree summer’s day, and I could hear faint “plops” as youngsters pulled “phat manus” and “bombs” off the bridge into the Kaiapoi River as generations before them have done.

Do they know that the river is deemed “unsuitable” for swimming with E. coli levels of up to 2,420 per 100ml? This information is available on LAWA’s website, Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) - Can I swim here? It makes for sobering reading. With levels this high, we should supply these youngsters with full PPE gear to wear over their shorts. The saddest fact is that this story is repeating itself from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

We are witnessing the systemic collapse of New Zealand’s freshwater systems as our environment can no longer handle the extreme pressure we have placed on it through decades of urban and rural intensification. We have taken too much from our environment and we must start giving back.

Change is coming with a renewed focus on healthy waterways through the National Policy for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM), which the Government announced in August 2020, as well as Plan Change 7 to the Canterbury Land & Water Regional Plan (PC7), which progressed through submissions and a hearing in front of independent hearing commissioners last year.

I attended the PC7 hearing in December and it boosted my spirits to observe the passion our community has for improving Waimakariri’s waterways. I hope the changes that come out of PC7 will be bold and far reaching.

The concept of Te Mana o te Wai underpins the NPS-FM and places the highest value on the health of freshwater systems. This philosophy is the new basis for how we, as a society, interact with our environment. The NPS-FM creates a framework for change, but we must also change how we think as council bodies, as communities, as businesses, and as individuals about how our systems/practices must shift from productive growth mode to sustainability mode, and how we can live within an acceptable environmental footprint. On an individual level, we need to realise how, over the long term, that wet paddock or riverbed block would benefit the planet if it were left to revert to a wetland or a more natural state.

This year the Waimakariri Water Zone Committee will focus on priority areas and working with the community to improve our waterways.

We will support change through three newlyformed catchment groups – the Sefton Saltwater Creek Catchment Group, the Landcare Working Group, and the Biodiversity Group.

We are ahead of the curve in Waimakariri in terms of engaging with farmers, waterway conservation groups and the wider community, but we still have a long journey ahead to restore our rivers and streams.

We must work together in a united way to leave our land and water for future generations to inherit in a better state than when we found it.

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua - As man disappears from sight, the land remains.

Michael Blackwellis is chair of Waimakariri Water Zone Committee.

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