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Polluted Water from a Polluted Democracy –

why the coalition government must deliver fit for purpose freshwater standards before the election.

Just another broken promise?

New Zealand has an indirect democracy where every three years we elect politicians to carry out promised election policy.

In 2017 the Government was elected on its promises to build more homes and to clean up our freshwater. While logistics may limit the amount of houses that can be built, the revision of the standards contained in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management is only limited by the competence of the responsible ministers and their political will.

Consultation on the proposed freshwater standards is complete. The proposed standards have been subjected to oversight by the Scientific Technical and Advisory Group, (STAG). If the present government does not deliver fit for purpose freshwater standards before this year’s election they will continue a legacy of dirty (water) politics inherited from the National government.

Canterbury’s dirty water politics – a broken democracy

In response to the 2007/08 financial crisis Canterbury was “sacrificed for the sake of New Zealand” when the Key government scrambled to increase GDP. The result was a desperate and reckless government knowingly facilitating massive irrigation development in a region with unsuitable vulnerable soils before regulations and the means to control the inevitable nitrate pollution were in place. Ironically Canterbury dairy farmers the initial beneficiaries of this irrigation development now see their equity disappearing through fears of the costs of addressing the escalating nitrate pollution that is occurring throughout the region’s surface and groundwater.

This ill-considered irrigation development was made possible through dirty politics – the constitutionally repugnant Environment Canterbury Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management 2010 passed under urgency with flagrant disregard to parliamentary conventions simply disenfranchised Canterbury ratepayers for a decade as government appointed commissioners replaced the elected regional councillors.

The ECan Act diminished the protections afforded by Canterbury National Water Conservation Orders. Part 2 of the RMA (resource exploitation) took precedence over Part 9 (protection of the environment). Cantabrians no longer had access to the Environment Court. The non-statutory Canterbury Water Management Strategy was given primacy over the RMA.

Dr Phillip Joseph, professor of constitutional law at Canterbury University and Austin Forbes QC chair of the New Zealand Law Society Rule of Law committee and former President of the NZLS expressed their concerns in the NZ Law Journal and in the press. “The lasting implications will be in the negative impact on local government democracy and the rule of law.”

The Human Rights Commission in a submission against the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Bill found the Bill failed on many levels including breaching S. 27 of the NZBORA.

The Chief Commissioner for Human Rights, David Rutherford found the subsequent extension of the Ecan Act a breach of democracy.

By 2013 Jan Wright the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment stated “the conversion of beef and sheep farming to dairy farming land had increased nutrient loads on waterways.”

“It is almost inevitable that without significantly more intervention, we will continue to see an on-going deterioration in water quality in many catchments across the country, particularly in Canterbury and Southland.”

Cynical standards contained in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2014 amended 2017 overseen by Nick Smith has embedded New Zealand’s emerging water pollution through setting limits that fail to protect 20% of New Zealand’s aquatic life and fail to ensure rivers are safe for swimming.

The NBR recorded that Environment Minister Nick Smith targeted the Rakaia conservation order and appointed Margaret Bazley (chair) David Caygill, Peter Skelton, Tom Lambie and Rex Williams to replace the sacked elected councillors.

Can we trust politicians to improve the quality of our rivers (and our democracy)?

In November 2019 Canterbury finally returned a democratically elected ECan. Ten new councillors stood because of their concerns about the region’s water. They will have to overcome a culture of water exploitation/pollution – a legacy of the government appointed commissioners.

In a “Message from the Ministers” Essential Freshwater, Healthy Water, Fairly Allocated MfE October 2018, David Parker and Damien O’Connor acknowledged the Government won a mandate, and now carry a duty to improve the quality of our rivers. “There is no easy fix, because it sometimes takes many years for the pollution already in our land and water to dissipate. But we are not going to keep kicking the can down the road and leave the hard issues for future generations”.

Given this assurance the least we can expect of these ministers is the setting of meaningful national freshwater standards before the elections in September 2020.

With the track record of the National Party, a failure by the present Government will show our present form of (indirect) government is not fit for purpose.

Peter Trolove

President NZFFA