The Right to Know, the Right to Say.

Opinion by Ken Sims

As the furore of the proposed Taupo Carp Farm dies down, with that particular battle seemingly won, it is perhaps timely to reflect on what we can learn from it and similar issues around the country at the moment.

Firstly, it is important to note that while this battle against carp farms may have been won, the war continues. There is the small matter of the existing farms in Nelson and the threats they pose, along with the ludicrously unsafe transportation of these fish around the country, based on the contentious and unproven assumption that it is ‘safe’. There is more yet to come on this issue, and if we are certain of anything, it is that someone somewhere is sooner or later going to have another crack at it.

There are two other important lessons to take from this issue. Firstly, it got as far as it did, because it ‘flew under the radar’. Hello! The ‘scientific evidence’ for concluding this was both safe and desirable was presented by a commercial company who would benefit financially from supplying the fish! As a ‘business proposal’ only one well embellished side was presented to decision making bodies. They not only enthusiastically embraced it, they made the conscious decision not to tell anyone about it. The consent for this was granted on a ‘non-notified’ basis. This was after both DOC and F&G NZ had given it the ‘thumbs up’, again without bothering to ask or notify their public stakeholders. It strains one’s credulity to think that none of these organisations would have thought that the public, particularly the angling public, wouldn’t have had an interest or opinion about the merits or otherwise of the case, so you are left with the abiding impression that they just didn’t give a damn.

Secondly, even when it was forced out into the open, it was only overturned, because of extremely vocal and sustained pressure from individuals and the public, mainly anglers. It failed only because one of the commercial stakeholders recognised that it was completely contrary to both public opinion and the commercial image that company wanted to project. This in turn forced the company setting up the project to realise that they had also failed to recognise this. But what about the other stakeholders in this project? Let’s start at the top and work down.  Communications from Louise Upston, the local National MP revealed that she not only supported the project, but that she was unaware and unconcerned about opposition to it from her constituents and the rest of the public. DOC’s Minister Maggie Barry assured parliament that the project was completely safe and a great potential asset to Taupo. Who was she listening to? Certainly not the public, or those within the scientific community who were voicing their concerns about it. The District Council, by their own admission, heard and saw only a one-sided business case – growth, employment, money. And despite living beside the country’s most iconic lake, that apparently was enough. Once again, the conscious decision not to seek consent, demonstrates both how out of touch and unconcerned they were with their constituents views. Finally, it was endorsed by Fish & Game NZ. An organisation entirely funded by hunters and anglers to protect the recreational fishery. Were their constituents even alerted or notified about this decision, let alone asked what they thought of it? No, they were not.

Emerging Trend

Given all of that, along with the Ministry of Primary Industries agenda to encourage and support regional freshwater aquaculture, what would be the chances of carp farms popping up somewhere else pretty soon? It would seem pretty darn high. And what are the chances of hearing about it in time to influence the decision one way or another? It would seem pretty darn low.

This appears to be part of an emerging trend that can be seen in many other issues that directly affect anglers. Let’s do a quick, and by no means complete, roundup.

Recently we were treated to the unseemly sight of Nick Smith swimming in the Manawatu River to celebrate a new action plan by the Manawatu River Leaders Accord. So were they celebrating the completion of the old plan? No, a lot of that had been put in the ‘too hard basket’, so a new plan was required. Has the overall water quality in the river improved? Not according to monitoring on the LAWA site. But surely, 98 environmental farm plans have been completed. True, but the majority of them don’t comply with either the One Plan or National Standards, and have been approved anyway. Of course, it would have been much more impressive if Nick Smith had swum below the PNCC sewage outfall, after the Regional and City Councils did a ‘sweetheart’ deal to circumvent the Environment Court and put off requiring the City Council to do something about it polluting the river.

In Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa, plans to destroy local rivers and fisheries with irrigation dams, continue unabated, despite them being neither environmentally and financially viable. Understandably, farmers don’t want to pay for them, and you might think that would be an end to the matter – but no, regional and national government think they are a great idea, so currently the taxpayers and ratepayers are forking out, whether they know it, want it, like it or not. In Hawkes Bay, ratepayers have been told that not only are they paying to pollute their own rivers, but that they have to pay again on top of that to protect those rivers from the pollution they are paying for – a situation so ludicrous that even George Orwell couldn’t have dreamed it up.

Canterbury Woes

They are of course trying to emulate Canterbury, where intensive agriculture on inappropriate land is both drying up whole rivers and their aquifers, and polluting them to the point where fisheries have become unsustainable and even human health is being impacted. Recently North Canterbury Fish & Game have had to close lowland fisheries to try and preserve what stock remains, as pollution levels are preventing spawning and recruitment from further up the rivers. Of course, Canterbury does have the advantage of not being a regional democracy, its Regional Council having been replaced by Environment Minister Nick Smith with appointed ‘puppet’ commissioners, so it doesn’t have to worry about what the public think.

The recent Choose Clean Water NZ campaign toured the country on a limited itinerary, talking to ordinary New Zealanders about their expectations and aspirations for our rivers and lakes. The overwhelming response was that (1) they expected rivers and lakes to be swimmable without making you ill, (2) they felt loss, anger and disempowerment over the current polluted and over-extracted state of our waterways, and (3) they felt ignored or threatened by the authorities that were supposed to protect our waterways, and the industries that were polluting them. The immediate, off-hand and dismissive response from Environment Minister Nick Smith to the suggestion of ‘swimmable’ waterways was that it was ‘impractical’.

It is pretty easy to see a common thread running through these and similar issues. Public input into environmental decisions, even by anglers over public waterways, is being actively discouraged, and when they are made, actively ignored (unless supported by a commercial imperative). Arguably, democracy is not functioning as it should.

Worsening Trend.

And given the trend, it is highly likely that the commercial exploitation and erosion of democracy will get worse. Much worse. What began with the first National reform of the RMA, which negated some environmental protections in favour of ‘economic development’, is set to be amplified by the second such reform currently before parliament. The first has resulted in this ludicrous situation where regional authorities are trying to be both protector and exploiter of the environment, and forming private business companies that work in secrecy, are not accountable and which often advocate the opposite of what councils are trying to achieve. This favouring of business exploitation above environmental protection would be magnified under the second reform, giving Ministers widespread powers to override and direct Council decisions. We can see this sort of system already trialled in Canterbury. The proposal has already been criticised by Fish & Game NZ, the NZ Law Society and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. It is currently open for submissions. Have you had your say?

With winter approaching, it is easy to see long dark shadows falling over our lands and waterways. But if Taupo teaches us anything, it is that even when regulation fails and consultation is ignored, you can still make a difference. If enough people stand up, shout and draw a line in the sand, saying ‘this is not acceptable to me’, they can be heard and listened to. But you have to be prepared to stand up and be held accountable for what you value and believe in. Don’t automatically assume that those you think should be representing your interests will be. The alternative is to bend over and take what you are given.

Ken Sims