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Environmental Defence Society lays down challenge to Bluegreens Forum at Waitangi

Congratulations on yet another well-attended Bluegreens Forum. This is an excellent initiative and I’m pleased to have attended most of them.

The Forum is an assembly of progressive and knowledgeable people including environmentally aware members of National’s caucus. I know that many of you share my desire to see our country’s environment managed wisely, sustainably and with care. Given that context I feel I have a mandate to speak frankly, because there are some serious challenges ahead of us.

Coalition agreements may be taking National away from the Bluegreens espousal of practical environmentalism into dangerous places. The twin drivers of New Zealand First’s populism and ACT’s ideology have arguably created the most radical anti-environment government since the early 1980s. If Shane Jones is to be believed, we are looking at more pollution, coal mines on the conservation estate, species extinctions (“goodbye Freddy”), loss of outstanding landscapes, seabed mining, unbridled power in the hands of Ministers including him, and serious harm to our natural world.

I have to ask, has National subcontracted environmental management to ACT and New Zealand First? It looks like it. The panoply of policies on offer is not all bad of course, but overall it’s the worst I’ve seen, and I’ve been around for a while.

Those policies, if implemented, are not just going to cause environmental harm. Our international reputation will suffer too. Many of them are inconsistent with new and emerging Free Trade Agreements and other international obligations.

And all this is unnecessary. You do not need to declare a de facto war on nature to achieve your objective of stimulating economic growth.

Let’s run through the key policy settings.

On climate.

I welcome the appointment of new Minister Watts and look forward to working with you, Simon. The good news is that thanks to National, the institutional architecture, NDCs and 2050 commitments stand. The bad news is that it’s not at all clear how we can get there.

The ETS settings need urgent attention to put a cap on removals otherwise we will have a glut of pine trees on productive farmland and no real reductions. And we will really have to work hard to implement the transition to renewables without sacrificing our environment. Work out the best places for solar, wind and other infrastructure via strategic spatial planning, instead of having a damaging free-for-all.

On oceans.

We note that National’s positive pre-election commitments on oceans policy stand. So let’s make progress on Marine Protected Areas and institutional reform such as an Oceans Commission. The Hauraki Gulf Bill is on its way through the House and more marine protection there will be welcomed by a large proportion of the electorate.

The genesis of the Seachange collaborative process was under National so it will be good to get this landed on your watch. Marlborough Sounds might be the next opportunity for a similar collaborative process.

Also, let’s work on phasing out harmful bottom-trawling and dredging and transition to a modern, sustainable fishing fleet. Given that the Oceans and Fisheries portfolio is with New Zealand First, and that Minister is hyperbolizing development at all costs, you will need to stand firm in support of your commitments here. I expect Minister Potaka to be the lead for National on oceans reform.

On fast track.

EDS supports fast-track if done well. But let’s get it right.

One key element of the proposed approach is extremely high risk. Ministers should be gateways, not decision-makers. Big projects are complex and need careful evaluation to avoid bad outcomes. Proper assessment and decision-making via expert, independent, evidenced-based decision-making panels won’t take any more time (because that would be required anyway for condition-setting) but would be a responsible approach rather than one aimed at ramming potentially bad projects through at all costs.

And why put Ministers in harm’s way approving specific projects? Where that has happened elsewhere, such as in WA, corrupt practice has emerged, and Ministers have become mired in multiple court proceedings. The approach represents constitutional overreach by the Executive arm. National has been there before and got burned: I refer to the National Development Act 1979 (I was there). You really should learn from past mistakes. And I’m really worried about what harmful projects might be scheduled in the Bill – at last count more than 59 – without any substantive time for assessment of any kind.

Ministers picking winners would likely end in tears. This is easily fixed through expanding the role of expert panels and bringing clear environmental criteria into the decision-making. Fast track can be made to work.

On resource management reform.

We understand you have been thinking about 2 acts to replace the RMA; are going to take time to work them up; and are looking to a proper engagement process. That’s good, but it’s complex and you won’t do it in one term.

As a faster alternative, consideration should also be given to knocking the RMA into shape, rather than starting over, which is what Simon Upton has suggested. And through this process, please think environmental bottom lines and expunge “balance” from your lexicon: balance means the environment always loses out.

Whatever approach to reform is taken, we need cross-party support to avoid policy lurching as governments change.

We are deploying EDS’s Policy Shop to do some serious thinking about the way forward, including researching international exemplars. We want to help, if you’ll let us.

On freshwater.

We note the repeal and replace commitment for freshwater instruments. This is troubling. Freshwater policy has had a long gestation and needs continuity. The current system is workable: a rational hierarchy of priorities that sets ecological health first; bottom line limits set nationally; actual limits and time-bound targets set regionally and collaboratively with communities; and science-based independent one-stop hearings.

I know many of you are from farming backgrounds, but I would urge you to tread carefully in this policy space. There is a lot of misinformation, and we can’t afford to enable more pollution for longer. This is where a wrong step would put us in default of our UK FTA obligations and likely others as well, and harm our primary export sector. Reform should be progressed through an Independent Board of Inquiry to ensure evidence-based outcomes, which I think is what is intended.

I do concede that the process could be simplified without going backwards. That is something we could work constructively on.

On biodiversity.

National has a proud history of progress in this area including Predator Free and setting up the collaborative exercise that led to the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity. That process worked, with all parties including notably Federated Farmers, agreeing on the shape of the NPS IB.

Coalition agreements are however a concern and reflect (forgive me for being frank) some ignorance about the state of our biodiversity across both private and public land. Ninety percent of seabirds; 94 percent of reptile species; and 74 percent of terrestrial bird species are threatened with extinction or at risk of becoming threatened. Altogether nearly 4000 of our native species are in trouble – and it is expected to get even worse. Surely we can’t have extinctions on your watch, but that is what one of your coalition partners has signaled.

Where you can help is by keeping national direction and Significant Natural Areas (SNAs) in place after the proposed review, and complementing them with biodiversity incentives which the previous government worked on but couldn’t land. That would help get rural buy-in and assist with farm-based emissions offsetting.

And given that environment and conservation funding represent just 2% of government spending (see page 8 of the PCE’s recent report), you’d have to ask why DOC is in the frame for swingeing cuts, when it has always been underfunded. It manages 30% of our country and is the lead agency for biodiversity management. A more nuanced funding approach is needed for that entity, given its vital role in biodiversity conservation.

To summarise.

EDS is strictly non-party political. We have worked constructively with numerous governments over many decades. The last National-led government made great progress: the EEZ Act; the Environmental Protection Authority; starts on freshwater reform; and more. I look forward to working with National again and in a constructive and positive spirit. But in the end EDS is a voice for nature and if we think Government is going off the rails, we’ll call that out.

Finally, I really do urge you to think about our environment; it’s what makes our country unique; it’s why people want to bring up their kids here; and it drives our trading and tourism brands. Think about investing in nature because of all its multiple benefits, something we’ll hear about over dinner this evening from Pure Advantage.

Let’s make the Bluegreens caucus a powerful voice for practical environmentalism as you go about your business of governing this country. Stand up for your beliefs.


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