Since the Government released their shambolic swimmable rivers announcement, we have also seen the exit of Forest and Bird from the Land and Water Forum (LAWF). This event removes the last scrap of credibility from the Government's fresh water reforms. Since Fish and Game left in 2015 the process has stumbled along, but now the sham is up. The Government has wasted an opportunity to capitalise on the goodwill in the LAWF to achieve sustainable improvements in our rivers and lakes.
Land and Water Forum
Through the LAWF, environmental groups and progressive farmers managed to persuade the farming lobby into some reasonably bold steps. In the spirit of collaboration those recommendations should have been implemented in full, no questions asked. Instead, the Government arrogantly chose to side with the regressive farmers and irrigators, and cherry picked the Forum's recommendations that suited them.
The Government has implemented some LAWF recommendations, such as the requirement to exclude stock (pigs, deer and beef cattles, not just dairy) from waterways over time. This is the key change that should see bacteria levels dropping in our rivers over time. It is a step forward, but not quite the giant leap towards swimmability that the Minister claimed.
Other important recommendations have gone untouched. One vital one is around the ecological health of a river. The LAWF agreed that the Macroinvertebrate Community Index (MCI – a measure of bugs in a river) should be used as a measure of ecological health, and measures should be taken when it declined and/or was below a certain threshold. This and many other recommendations have not been implemented so far.
Hypocritically, Minister Nick Smith has accused these environmental groups of playing politics during an election year. That claim doesn’t hold any water; it is the Government that is cherry picking the recommendations that were created collaboratively and in good faith. Now the Government and Minister Nick Smith have no chance to restore their credibility on matters environmental before the election.
What would TOP do differently?
As per our TOP Policy #4: Democracy Reset, we are big believers in the power of deliberative democracy; giving people the power to make the decisions that affect them. The Land and Water Forum is an example of this in action, and we are hugely supportive of this type of approach when done right.
The problem is that in this case, collaboration hasn’t been done right. The Government couldn’t bring itself to hand over real decision making power to the Forum. Proper collaboration would be where the government participated in the Forum and any of the decisions made were enacted by the Government, no questions asked. Instead the Government has cherry picked the recommendations it likes, and left the rest. This is a very bitter pill to swallow for environmental groups that have already made compromises in the LAWF, to see their decisions compromised again at the Cabinet table. At the very least, the Government should explain why they aren’t implementing their recommendations in full.
TOP’s first action to remedy this situation would be to implement all of the recommendations made by the Land and Water Forum. Even then, that isn’t enough. There are some areas where LAWF was unable to come to agreement, and these still need resolving. Without the consensus of LAWF the Government has been too timid to act in these areas, which is no surprise given they are too timid to even implement all of LAWF’s recommendations.
The big issues here are allocating the rights to use and pollute our fresh water resources. As per our Environmental policy TOP will place a charge on all commercial water users, with the money recycled into improving fresh water and settling Maori fresh water claims. We also propose setting acceptable benchmarks for nitrogen leaching in each catchment; those that are leaching above that level will pay, and those below that will receive the money. Strong incentives are needed to ensure all polluters are doing no more damage than what society deems acceptable, and that is what TOP’s policy will deliver.