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 the premise 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.


Comments (13)

by Rod Thomson on March 30, 2010
Rod Thomson

It is interesting to see that all ECan councillors have been given the boot. The new commissioners will take over the whole show, not just the water functions.

As the outgoing chairman says, it will be a demanding job. If up to 7 new commissioners are appointed (!), their selection will be crucial to any orderly resumption of ECan's job.

Hopefully, they will all be experienced outsiders who can take a fresh look at the region and its problems. Otherwise, the whole raft of divisive issues will be back on the table, in spades.


by Claire Browning on March 31, 2010
Claire Browning

The new commissioners will take over the whole show, not just the water functions.

Yes. Which exceeds what was recommended.

Hopefully, they will all be experienced outsiders ...

Dame Margaret Bazley is non-partisan, to be sure. But she is going to require support, so again I agree with your point about the selection of the other commissioners.

When I flicked over to Parliament last night, around 9, this Bill implementing the recommendations was already having its second reading -- pushing it through all stages under urgency. The .pdf of the Bill is here.

by Claire Browning on March 31, 2010
Claire Browning

I also wanted to say, that what I did see of the debate -- a small portion, around half an hour's worth -- was a most unedifying spectacle in the circumstances.

I mean, I am no stranger to how MPs conduct themselves in the House. I gave up expecting high standards of them long ago. But this, sacking democratically elected representatives, and usurping the right of the public to scrutinse the enabling legislation, is serious stuff, that I would expect to be conducted with some gravity. Instead, we have Rodney Hide lounging, grinning, sneering, chewing gum ... and I do not want to defame Nick Smith, so am happy to be corrected, but I would swear that was him, one of the sponsoring Ministers, I saw walking out of the chamber while Kennedy Graham spoke.

by Simon on March 31, 2010


Yes, I switched over to Parliament TV to see the very unedifying spectacle.

I am quite concerned about some aspects of the Environment Canterbury Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management Bill. (Oh no another awful acronym, the "ECTCIWMB"!)

Giving Dame Margaret the decision making for the Hurunui Water Conservation Order application when that process is perhaps 80% complete (Tribunal compromise decision with Minister) .

Water Conservation Orders were the only part of RMA deliberately not subject to Part 2 (sustainable management) of the RMA, as the statutory purpose inherited from the previous legislation is preservation in the natural state of nationally significant rivers. Dame Margaret's decision on the Hurunui River WCO must consider 'sustainable management' and the principles of the Canterbury Strategic Water Management Strategy.

And there is of course the Hurunui Water Project suite of storage and irrigation consents notified at Ecan  (, which cannot co-exit with the Hurunui River WCO if approved in it's current form.

This part is a major change to the water and rivers framework of the RMA that is nothing to do with Ecan's jurisdiction or performance. It is being rammed through Parliament without due process.It's also an affront to due process for Fish and Game as the Hurunui WCO applicant to have the legal process (and goalposts) changed at the nearly the end of the process. It's also an affront to the transitional practice that has applied to all previous (overly numerous) amendments to the RMA: that the process for all applications and plans are 'grandfathered' with the version of the RMA that existed on they day they were lodged.

Here's a quote, not from the Greens, but from Canterbury NBR correspondent Chris Hutchings (

"The move represents a victory for Irrigation NZ and rural interests seeking control of the region’s waterways for irrigation projects involving the Hurunui, Rakaia, Waimakariri and other main rivers."

In respect of that part of the bill, it's hard to disagree.


by Robert Miles on March 31, 2010
Robert Miles

I think its all about greed, white gold. Many of the consent applications were doubtlessly rejected because they were substandard and given this is an educationally limited area of NZ, particularly SC and Mid canterbury where only 2% have degrees of less a low standard of applicants could be expected. I was listening to the parliamentary debate today and the Green Kennedy Graham was far too legalistic for good poliitcs. My suggestion make Daziel the Labour leader, Goff is too divided and establishment to be effective. Daziel is back to her best and a mix of populism and ability to nail the nub of the issue. Make Mallard her deputy. Bazley like Palmer will just do the new rights bidding and is well past her use by date. On the eve of the 2005 election in a curbside political labour rally outside my Bangor St flat in Ch I told Barnett that it was essential to send Clark into Epsom to tell the voters it was essential to defeat Hide and get Act out. Barnett ridiculed the idea that Hide had any chance. History.

by Tim Watkin on April 01, 2010
Tim Watkin

My first question was wondering why Dame Margaret let her good name be used by the government for this questionable crusade. (Actually, when I was typing that I accidentally missed the e and her name became Dam Margaret... Which could become an apt nickname for her if she's tempted to stay long in Canterbury!)

It's not a good look for her. Also interesting to note that Creech erred in his report and Canterbury doesn't have 70% of the country's freshwater resources. It's more like 15%, or maybe 50%... see here.

by Raymond A Francis on April 01, 2010
Raymond A Francis

Ecan or Ecan't as it is known down here in the south has be unhelpful to just about all those who have fallen into its clutches

Yesterday a newsletter from them arrived shouting how wonderful and caring they are. This on the day they got the chop and is a perfect example of how disengaged they are with their constituents and the real world

Regarding the "blow for democracy" tag, (mostly heard from the exiting councillors) it is interesting that all Mayors called for drastic changes, probably the first time they have ever been in unanimous agreement.


by Claire Browning on April 01, 2010
Claire Browning

This joint media statement, from Forest & Bird, EDS, et al, which has just come through, says that the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Act [the one pushed through under urgency] changes both the decision-making process and the criteria for water conservation orders in Canterbury. The effect of this will be to reduce the statutory protection of iconic rivers in Canterbury, opening them up for dams and irrigation use.  It makes the following points, saying this is the river equivalent of amending Schedule 4:

  • Water conservation orders (WCOs) are the ‘national parks’ of water management in NZ. They recognise and provide for ‘outstanding amenity or intrinsic values’ of waters, either in their natural state or where the waters are outstanding even if modified. 
  • Ministers have previously approved WCOs following an inquiry and recommendation by the Environment Court.  This process was independent of the regional council in recognition of WCOs’ national status.  The recommendations for Canterbury water bodies will now be made by Environment Canterbury Commissioners appointed by the Minister, without any rights of appeal to the Environment Court.
  • The criteria for deciding WCOs were previously set out in Part IX of the Resource Management Act and the key test was whether the water body had ‘outstanding amenity or intrinsic values’.  Now the test to be applied both to new applications and to proposals to amend existing WCOs is no longer the matters in Part IX, but whether the protection of a water body promotes ‘sustainable management’, while also considering the previously non-statutory Canterbury Strategic Water Study.  The effect of the change is to give economic values a prominent role in the decision process, treating the river not as the equivalent of a national park, but rather as a ‘working river’.
  • The water bodies immediately affected are the Rakaia, Rangitata and Ahuriri Rivers and Lakes Coleridge and Ellesmere, along with the application for protection of the Hurunui River, which was awaiting a hearing in the Environment Court. The draft Hurunui WCO, which has almost completed its statutory process and is currently before the Environment Court, will be sent back for reconsideration by the new Environment Canterbury Commissioners against the new statutory test.
by Simon on April 01, 2010

You make the point about water conservation orders much more clearly than I did in my post above.
The press release of the five organisations is bang on. The legislation really cries out 'Have a go at the Canterbury water conservation orders'.

If Dame Margaret's commissioners don't give economic values enough weighting, the water interests are very familiar with the courts. The lack of appeal on facts to the Environment Court is unlikely to put them off.   Ngai Tahu and Central Plains Water Limited took the 'priority' of water issue (the 'who is first in line' issue) all the way to the Court of Appeal.

I have been looking at the "Dame Margaret" bill to see if the additional powers in Subpart 4, sections 61 to 69, will be likely to help 'fix' the Natural Resources Regional Plan.

S 63 appears to say Ecan (Dame Margaret's commissioners) must have particular regard to the CWMS in deciding the NRRP. Well, okay.

S 66 appears to say that there is no right of appeal of that decision to the Environment Court, only to the High Court, if you were a submitter.

S 69 appears to say that IF hearings on submissions on the NRRP have concluded (S 69(1)(b)) AND Ecan revokes the delegation to the NRRP commissioners (S 69(1)(a)) THEN Ecan can then make an 'instant' decision with no further cross-submissions or hearings AS LONG AS submissions, evidence and officers reports are considered.

However, Ecan's decision-making for the five problematic NRRP 'chapters', which were notified in July 2004, is 'grandparented' under the version of the RMA that existed in 2004. This is spelt out in S 131 of the Resource Management Amendment Act 2005, under S 161 of the Resource Management (Simplifying and Streamlining) Amendment Act 2009 and under S 62 of the Environment Canterbury Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management Bill (which specifically says S 161 still applies).

So, on the face of it, Dame Margaret can't make a quick-no-hearing-no-appeal decision on the NRRP, relying on S 63, 66 and 69. And submitters will still have rights of appeal to the Environment Court.

It appears to me that Dame Margaret can only use S 61, 63, 66 and 69 to speed up variations (amendments) to the NRRP, that she initiates AFTER the commencement of the Bill. At last count, Ecan were already up to 14 'variations' on the NRRP. I don't really see more variations cutting through the complexity. It's more likely to add to it.

However, Dame Margaret may 'withdraw' the proposed NRRP chapters under Schedule 1 Clause 8D 'Withdrawal of proposed policy statements and plans' of the RMA. That clause has not been changed since 1993, it was in the RMA when the NRRP was notified in 2004, so it can be used by Ecan/Dame Margaret.

I would favour complete withdrawal and starting again. I don't think the NRRP is worth saving.

For example, even if the NRRP was operative tomorrow, the rules only make consents exceeding a groundwater allocation block  "non-complying" and therefore arguable at a hearing. It would be the Rakaia-Selwyn groundwater zone hearing all over again. Which Ecan lost and were accused of 'advocacy'.  The more rigorous 'third order' groundwater allocations that would be backed by prohibited rule status are a 'work-in-progress' And have been since 2004.

Really, this shows that Dame Margaret has a very tough job. She will need some very good planners as fellow commissioners to produce an effective regional water allocation plan for Canterbury. She is unlikely to be helped by the Ecan planners as they are stuck in Plato's cave, mistaking the world viewed through the lense of the NRRP as reality.

by Paul McMahon on April 01, 2010
Paul McMahon

I love the Plato's cave comment Simon, wonderful :)

by Claire Browning on April 27, 2010
Claire Browning

Here are the Commissioners' bios:

  • Dame Margaret is chair of the New Zealand Fire Services Commission and Registrar of the Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament. She has a long and distinguished career in public service and held the positions of Secretary for Transport and Director General of Social Welfare.
  • Mr Caygill is chair of the Electricity Commission, chair of the ACC Stocktake Group, chair of the Education New Zealand Trust, chair of the Advisory Committee on Official Statistics, associate member of the Commerce Commission and a board member of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority. He had three terms as a Christchurch city councillor and six terms as a member of Parliament.
  • Mr Bedford owns a small vineyard in North Canterbury which he manages with his wife and son. He is the chair of Enterprise North Canterbury.
  • Mr Couch is Pro-Chancellor of Lincoln University, a member of the Lincoln University Council, a trustee, Ngai Tahu Ancillary Claims Trust and Rapaki Trustee (appointed by the Maori Land Court).
  • Mr Lambie owns a 415 hectare dairy farm at Pleasant Point South Canterbury which is BioGro organic certified. He is Chancellor of Lincoln University, chair of Opuha Water Limited, a trustee of the Todd Foundation, chair of the Hikurangai Foundation and a trustee of Motu, Economic and Public Policy Research Trust.
  • Professor Skelton is a former Environment Court judge and Associate Professor of Resource Management Law at Lincoln University.
  • Mr Williams is the Chancellor of Canterbury University, chair of the West Coast District Health Board, chair of H W Richardson Group and a trustee of the Water Rights Trust.
by Simon on April 27, 2010

I hope it does not seem churlish of me to note that Tom Lambie's CV conveniently leaves out the consent compliance record for his organic dairy farm.

In February 2003, he was issued with an infringement notice and fine of $750 for a Section 15 discharge offence.

It was for a discharge of dairy shed effluent onto land with potential to enter water. In other words, he or his sharemilker or manager breached the conditions of the discharge consent for spray irrigating the dairy shed effluent.

The incident is documented on page 18 of the 'Annual environmental incidents and enforcement report for the period 1 July 2002 - 30 June 2003' Environment Canterbury Report No. R03/37 ISBN 1-86937-515-7

It can be viewed or downloaded at:

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