Canterbury matters

Can we stop talking about Auckland, just briefly? Canterbury matters as much to the future of New Zealand, and tells us more about the character of the government

Environment Canterbury (ECan) is not just a parochial stoush. Canterbury matters to us all.

A fortnight ago, I got a bit cross with the Greens. If they had an argument, I said, they ought to put it up or shut up; petty allegations about Wyatt Creech were not the same thing as an evidence-based ECan argument. Some people got a bit cross with me, which was good. It flushed out some readers with local knowledge. Although I suspect we have been hearing from some McKenzie Guardians, or sympathisers, I think that's fine; it makes a change from mainly hearing from the government. We have a clearer picture now of the goings-on in Canterbury, and some guidance about what to look for as the government makes its decisions about the future of ECan and its councillors.

Let’s start with why Canterbury matters. Canterbury matters because, as a dry place, facing uncharacteristic dairy expansion, it exemplifies wider threats to our national environment that are looming large right now. “Threats” is a pejorative word. Let’s say: it’s an example of the clash between us who love New Zealand just the way Nature made it, and do not want it to change; and them who pursue growth at much cost, by turning any and all productive land into mines and dairy farms.

And politically, Canterbury matters because it fits another piece into the jigsaw of this government’s character. The government’s handling of ECan is another example, as in Auckland, of their approach to local government. Like the Schedule 4 mining stocktake, it is another thin justification for preconceived ideas.

From the allegations swirling spaghetti-style around ECan, I think we can tease out these conclusions:

1. The council’s dysfunctional performance. Councillors on both loosely aligned sides (urban-greenie-left, and rural-dairy-right) have behaved badly. This includes councillors with dairy interests, whom the Auditor-General identified as having a conflict of interest on water issues. The whole council is riven with grievances, played out with high emotion in person and on paper; as I’ve put it before, they spend as much time scrapping with each other as they do running Canterbury. There are problems internally and externally, in their relationships with the mayoral forum and other local councils and, of course, lack of confidence by the government. Even if some of this is unfair to ECan, it is still a fact. They have not managed the biggest issue confronting them: water. Central government has been slow in helping them, but they haven't helped themselves. It is hard to dispute that some time on the bench would be salutary.

2. Implications for the environment, and for Canterbury. The Greens have tended to characterise ECan as a bit of a guardian of the environment, whereas the Creech et al review concluded that there has been undue focus on the environment. There is more to support the first assertion than the second, but environmental guardianship is only proper within the statutory framework of the Resource Management Act, and stopping some projects is not the same thing as an optimal environmental outcome. I think that on the whole, given where we are today, the council has failed to serve Canterbury’s interests, including its environmental interests, although environmentally, it has done some good things. It is the high environmental stakes in this debate that make it so hard-fought. For example, the Central Plains Water irrigation scheme would make Canterbury more resilient, but on the back of it is bound to come a further push for unsustainable development, and more landscape changes in this arid former grain-growing country. I remember how the Clutha looked, pre-Clyde dam, and afterwards; I don’t want that to happen again, nor do I want rivers emptied unsustainably.

3. The Creech governance review. Some find this no better than rubbish bin material. I think it is sloppy in its analysis of two key reasons for concluding ECan should be dismissed, which is unfortunate at best and, perhaps, quite telling. It makes no attempt to analyse whether ECan’s capability failure was so large that it was enough to roll democracy. Maybe the reviewers thought this was for the government to judge, and that it was enough to bandy about words like “enormous" and "unprecedented”. Yet in some contexts, they also found that councillors were managing to function and fulfil their statutory responsibilities, in spite of their acute personal differences. Second, on the question of whether ECan had misunderstood its role, the discussion began from thepremise that one person had said “our name is Environment Canterbury, therefore our job is to protect the environment”. The reviewers found instances where the council had appropriately balanced economic, social and other relevant considerations, yet concluded that there was too much focus on science and the environment. One Pundit reader summed it up thus: he had been told that the “review team arrived late for their day at ECan, and left early”.

4. The government’s policy. Various Ministers from John Key down (eg, in his 2010 opening statement to Parliament) have made clear the government’s desire, and indeed intention, to irrigate the Canterbury plains. ECan having handily opened up the door, the government is pushing this agenda through it. When Nick Smith says commissioners ought to be appointed to address “the most urgent issues”, I think we can deduce this is a euphemism for Central Plains Water.

5. The government itself has failed on this. This issue is highly politicised, both in the party political sense, and the ideological sense of environment vs economy. It follows from this that, whatever the merits of the respective arguments, Mr Creech’s appointment was stupid. It was stupid because the government must have known about the politicised nature of this brawl; therefore, appointing a National party dairy man was bound to be inflammatory. Alternatively, perhaps they simply did not care, and were pushing on regardless, which shows real arrogance.

Even ECan seems to have bowed to the inevitable and accepted that, for water, commissioners are bound to be appointed. I think we will learn more about whether the government is acting with any good faith at all on this issue by seeing what they do to hose down the politicisation, and ensure that the new incumbents can do a good job, that recognises all of the different interests.

  1. Labour spokesperson Brendon Burns has been making trouble about Jenny Shipley. Shipley has now ruled herself out of any role. If this kind of approach was taken, the government would have failed Canterbury, and all New Zealanders, by failing to achieve either finality or confidence. It would let down itself, in fact, because the other half of Canterbury, and the opposition half of Parliament, would be in uproar. The ECan councillors Canterbury voted for are factionalised, 7-all. This needs to be acknowledged, by a non-partisan or balanced appointment of commissioners.
  2. The same Pundit reader, who works in resource management, described Canterbury’s natural resources regional plan (NRRP) as “the INCIS police computer system” of planning and local government, with the Bible-like quality of being open to any interpretation. Given the doubts about the government’s motives, it would therefore seem to be a particular risk if ECan was replaced by commissioners, without doing something about the NRRP. A national environmental standard is in the pipeline; so is a national policy statement. Both have been very substantially and democratically progressed. It would seem a bit pre-emptive for a non-elected body to do too much in the meantime.
  3. All affected councils including ECan have endorsed the Canterbury Water Management Strategy -- Strategic Framework, which puts environment front and centre in its vision and objectives, and which the Creech review endorsed too. The same vision and objectives need to be carried forward, somehow.
I find it interesting that, over two discussion threads, rumbling along for a couple of weeks now, nobody has wanted to put the other side of the story. They felt, perhaps, that I was making a fine job of this myself -- it would not be the first time that, on Pundit, I had done a better job of articulating the government’s position in a rather more coherent fashion than they were bothering with, or capable of, themselves.
It reminds me of another time when we met silence -- the best method, after all, of squelching a low-profile blog post -- when I know for a fact that they had acted in outrageous bad faith, and were saying nothing because there was no possible excuse for it. But this week's tipped announcement will tell us more, I guess.