28 Jun 2015

Insight for 28 June 2015 - Democracy and Water Rights

From Insight, 8:12 am on 28 June 2015

After five years without a democratically elected regional council, warnings are being sounded that Canterbury's stock of capable leaders is in danger of being hollowed out.

As Insight investigated the plan for ECan to make a partial return to democracy, it was told the region is getting used to having decisions made for it by government appointed commissioners.

Pasture covered hills, lowland lake and rushes

Te Waihora - Lake Ellesmere is severely affected by nutrient run-off. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

Listen to Insight: Democracy and Water Rights

Environment Canterbury's councillors were sacked by the government amidst claims they were dysfunctional and had failed to introduce a water plan for the region, allowing it to make the most of its alpine water and reap the economic rewards of large scale irrigation.

Now there's a proposal for a partial return to democracy with a mix of elected members and appointed commissioners.

According to the government, there's still too much at stake to risk a return to fully elected councillors.

But the head of the Politics Department at Canterbury University, Bronwyn Hayward, takes issue with that position.

The partial return of democracy to Canterbury is in fact "close to gerrymandering" by the government to ensure farming interests continue to have the loudest voice around the council table.

"There's a reason democracies survive, and they survive because there's a wisdom in crowd thinking where the richer the debate the more we can be confident that the outcomes will really last for generations.

"Now of course democracies can be frustrating, and of course you'd like to be able to just rush a decision through and of course we sometimes don't get terrific councillors. But actually appointing your mates is never a good way to run your country," she says.

The mixed model should have been introduced three years ago, according to Professor Hayward.

She sounds a warning about the length of time Canterbury is being left without a fully elected council and serious impact that could have.

"We haven't got a skills base of people that have been sitting around the board. So when the government talks about a crisis now, it's a crisis all of their own making."

Nick Smith during caucas run 5/5/15

Environment Minister, Nick Smith Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Environment Minister Nick Smith, who also made the initial decision to sack the council, maintains a return to fully elected councillors would put to much power back in the hands of urban voters.

He argues full democracy at ECan would run the risk of councillors being elected that didn't share the same aims as the commissioners he put in place to regulate water use in Canterbury.

"What made the previous council very difficult was you had a rural community that had huge economic issues at stake with respect to fresh water and an urban community that was not that economically affected but very very concerned about the environmental issues."

"A highly polarised council and polarised governance bodies don't work well."

But there is still a strong feeling in Canterbury that ECan should return to being fully elected. When the councillors were sacked in 2010, thousands turn out to protest against the decision in a region where water is a crucial issue.

Sign on cairn made of river stones outlining protestors thoughts

Cairn in Cathedral Sq in Christchurch protesting against the sacking of Ecan Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

Hamish Rennie is a lecturer in Planning and Environmental Management at Lincoln University and another who objects to commission running ECan.

Portrait image outside

Hamish Rennie, Planning Lecturer Lincoln Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

"The National government treats New Zealand as New Zealand Incorporated. I'm quite happy with them doing that but then their approach is to think in terms of a business model whereby if you have a branch office which is not doing exactly what you want it to do, you get rid of the managers and appoint new managers that will do what you want it to do. And that's the sense I have about what happened in Canterbury."

Dr Smith insists there was no pressure from irrigators to dump the council, and that his decision was driven as much by a wish to see limits put on polluting dairy farmers as a desire to see the rapid expansion of irrigation schemes on the plains.

The elected councillors simply weren't up to the job, he says.

"They were the worst prepared for the change in stepping up New Zealand's water management, absolutely hopeless in terms of processing resource consents, the worst of 86 councils in New Zealand.

"We had the independent review of ECan describing the governance of the body as dysfunctional and we had a letter from all ten mayors in Canterbury, pleading for the government to intervene."

The main job of the commissioners is to bring in a Canterbury Water Management Strategy to decide how the region's water resources should be used, and to place limits on the amount of nitrogen dairy farmers are allowed to send into waterways.

To draw up the strategy the commissioners picked up where their elected counterparts left off by appointing committees across 10 water catchments.

The Hurunui catchment was the first to get its plan through and has been followed this year by a plan for the Selwyn Waihora catchment, known as Variation One.

It covers the area between the Waimakariri and Rakaia Rivers and includes one of the most polluted lakes in the country, Te Waihora-Lake Ellesmere.  

Fish and Game officer crouches beside canal of brown water topped by green algae

Scott Pearson alongside a drainage canal leading to Te Waihora - Lake Ellesmere Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

Fish and Game's Environmental advisor, Scott Pearson, picks green gloop out of one of the drainage canals that takes run-off from paddocks on neighbouring dairy farms that is then pumped straight into the lake.

"This particular spot here, you can just tell by the colour of the water that the clarity's poor. And we know that from a number of the monitoring sites around the lake that the nitrate levels are extremely high."

The lake will deteriorate further once the Central Plains irrigation scheme goes online in September, according to Scott Pearson.

"Once that scheme is fully running at 60,000 hectares, the additional cows might be between 60,000 and 80,000. So that's the equivalent of 800,000 to 900,000 people in the catchment that doesn't have a sewage treatment plant to deal with the aftermath."

The 14 percent reduction in overall nitrogen run-off Variation One aims to achieve over the next 23 years will still leave the catchment with more nitrogen run-off than it has now, says Mr Pearson.

But the commissioner and deputy ECan chairperson, David Caygill, is upbeat about the progress that has been achieved with an appointed council.

The changes ECan has introduced over the past five years are as much about environmental protection as advancing the interests of the irrigators, he says.

The scrapping of appeals to the Environment Court have allowed planning changes to be introduced two years ahead of schedule, and he insists the extra check the court provided hasn't been completely lost due to the retention of  independent commissioners who hear submissions and make the final decision on whether a plan should be implemented.

He also rejects any suggestion that commissioners are at risk of losing touch with the community because they are not elected.

"I feel as busy, but also as open, as connected, as if I was a politician. I'm not up for re-election, so I don't have to worry about the impact of any decisions I make on my election prospects.

"But to be honest that wasn't the sort of thing that used to keep me awake at night when I was an elected politician.

"My view has always been the most important thing an elected person can do is firstly make the decisions they believe are right, necessary, appropriate, and then be prepared to explain or defend them and be open on the basis on which you've acted. I think both of those tests apply to our behaviour as commissioners."

But Dr Smith believes the job the commissioners were put there to do is only half completed.

"Our number one concern is around the Canterbury Water Management Strategy, there's a huge amount of work that's happening in the zone committees, that work comes through a crunch period from 2016 to 2019, and we think that by having a mixed model we can keep that continuity but gradually shift it back to a democratic model so that by 2019 we've got a fully elected council and at the same time we've got a robust water plan for the region," he says.

A final decision on the make-up of the new council is expected shortly and a bill is expected to go before parliament before the end of the year, paving the way for elections next year.

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