3 Mar 2019

Simon Upton, MP's professional green conscience

From The House , 7:30 am on 3 March 2019

Because Parliament is an august and serious body of grown-ups it doesn’t actually call people ‘consciences’. It prefers terms like Ombudsman or Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Call them what you like, the Parliamentary Commissioner is employed to keep Parliament on the straight and green. The role provides Parliament with research, information and advice on Environmental issues as the PCE sees fit, with some finger-wagging thrown in for good measure.

There’s been a new green sheriff in town for nearly a year and a half, so the House felt it was probably time to check in.

Estuaries and tidal sand flats are important ecosystems, that are at risk from increasing sediment and nutrient run-off from the land.

 Estuaries and tidal sand flats are important ecosystems, that are at risk from increasing sediment and nutrient run-off from the land. The PCE is researching their management. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Green Shoots

Simon Upton

Simon Upton, from his OECD days. Photo: Supplied / OECD

Simon Upton was just 23 years old when he was first sworn in as a National Party MP in 1981. By 32 he was Minister for Health and the Environment. His policies weren’t always popular but no-one doubted his intelligence or determination.

Among his lasting outcomes are the Hazardous Organisms and New Substances Act (1996) and the Resource Management Act (1991), in which he completed the work begun by Geoffrey Palmer.

In 2000 he left Parliament, and then left New Zealand for a second career with the OECD; again in the environment field, but this time with an international focus.

The Office

The office of the Commissioner typically produces a few hefty pieces of research each year, having spent a year or more on each one, and has a few such issues underway at any time. It’s a large workload for the small, dedicated team of experts that staff his office on Wellington’s Terrace, across the road from the Big House. But it's an effort that sometimes manages to prompt change or shift a stuck debate. 

I asked Simon Upton which issues he has chosen to focus on. First out of the box (late last year) was a look at Overseer, the tool used for measuring nutrient loss on farms. It’s meant to help improve rural water quality and Mr Upton wanted to know if it was “fit for purpose”.

The next big piece of research will be tabled in Parliament on March 21st, 2019.  It investigates the implications of various methods of setting climate change carbon targets, particularly looking at agricultural emissions and forests as carbon ‘sinks’. This is timed to help inform the coming debate over promised carbon legislation.

Also due out this year are: a report on New Zealand environmental monitoring/reporting system; and a look at the likely environmental impact of projected tourism growth.

Beyond that, the office has begun researching the health and management of New Zealand’s estuaries, which have been soaking up the changing quality and sediment levels of rivers and which influence the health of the inshore ocean.

Interface for a Conscience

So how does this all act as Parliament’s conscience? 

  • These huge published reports are tabled in Parliament for all MPs to digest.
  • The Commissioner follows up in discussing them with relevant interested Select Committees.  
  • The Commissioner weighs in on legislation when it comes through via the Select Committee process.
  • And potentially MPs can use him as a resource in understanding issues better.

And most of that seems to work well, but apparently not the last one. At the PCE’s recent annual review before committee Simon Upton said the following:

“In the 16, 17 months I’ve been in the job, no single MP has approached me to say ‘look, I’d like to know a bit more about this, help me to understand what’s going on.’ That surprises me. I think MPs could make much greater use of the Commissioner’s office.”

This is something he also touched on in our interview, offering his services to all MPs and encouraging them to make use of him and his office’s expertise. He’s not promising miracles though. As he told the committee:

“We won’t give you easy answers but we could probably help you understand some of the issues which you’re dealing with.” 

That sounds like a challenge.