Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on Nick Smith’s latest steps to undermine river quality

September 19th, 2013

The Ruataniwha dam proposed for Hawke’s Bay has been controversial on a number of counts, but the issues involved have just cranked up a whole new level. See if you can square these two positions – both of them to do with a critical Department of Conservation draft submission on the dam project and its likely impact on water quality that was nipped in the bud – apparently after pressure was applied. Here’s Exhibit A, which was Conservation Minister Nick Smith to reporters on Tuesday, September 17:

“I did not know that this draft document even existed until this morning. And to have accusations that somehow I have covered up its existence – it is somewhat difficult to cover something up when you didn’t even know it existed.”

And here’s Exhibit B. It is an email dated 29 July at 6pm from deputy DOC chief Doris Johnson, to then-director general Al Morrison, and three other senior DOC managers. The email was sent in the wake of Johnson’s meeting earlier that day with Smith:

Hello, The minister wants to see the submission we are proposing to make on the Ruataniwha before it is lodged. I suggest you send it over tomorrow for him to consider the draft and also attach the briefing note you provided me. I am in Hamilton tomorrow but back on Wednesday. He is concerned and is likely to query whether we leave it all to the EPA to consider.

Almost immediately afterwards, the 50 page draft submission was reduced to a two paragraph comment. According to Radio New Zealand, its sources say the decision not to submit the draft submission to the Board of Inquiry into the Ruataniwha dam project was conveyed to staff on the morning of Wednesday 31 July. There could hardly be a more evident paper trail of officials being leaned on – in this case, to torpedo critical findings that the dam would facilitate the release of damaging nitrates into the river system. As RNZ reports:

The draft submission on the Ruataniwha Dam project said the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council proposal was an “untested” and “risky” approach to water management which could kill the rivers involved. The submission…said the council’s approach to managing toxins from intensive agriculture associated with the dam might not be sufficient to support life in rivers. It also said the ability to reverse the toxicity would be limited. The submission said the risks of the dam project had not been fully assessed, with an inadequate management plan for potentially high impact effects on rivers.

And as for Smith’s role….to reverse his own rhetorical question: how could he be asking on 29 July to see a submission that as late as September 17, he claimed not to know existed? Potentially, the issue entails the misleading of Parliament in that on Tuesday, Smith had also said:

“I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The member has claimed in the question that I had access to a report that I did not do so, until I heard it on Radio New Zealand National this morning.”

To hear Smith’s contorted explanation of how his positions are consistent – it comes down to whether he “ had access” and saw with his own two eyes, the full draft document before this week – you can check this link to today’s Morning Report interview. Even so, it is plain that before July 29, Smith had at least fore-knowledge of the contents of the draft submission and had discussed the submission with Doris Johnson that day – and as a result, DOC almost immediately withdrew from the process. Supposedly, “junior staff” had exceeded their brief. The over-riding point of that brief being – apparently – Don’t Take a Conservation Position that Might Annoy a Government Committed to Intensive Dairying Whatever the Impacts May Be On River Quality.

The neutrality of public servants – and their ability to fulfill their statutory obligations – are coming under increasing attack from Ministers and their staff. Senior managers see which way the wind is blowing from the Beehive, and jump to comply, or else. DOC has been bullied, and told that water quality is none of its core business. One can argue the ‘angels on pinhead’ point as to whether or not DOC has an interest in issues of water quality and related marine and bird life. Common sense would say it does. Surely, even if there was crossover with the Environment Protection Agency and regional council responsibilities for water quality, it wouldn’t hurt to have had DOC’s input on this matter as well – given that this report had been commissioned by someone at DOC, had garnered expert opinion from external consultants and was virtually completed? The taxpayers who funded the staff hours and expensive expertise that went into the draft DOC submission have been robbed. And the media and Parliament have been misled by Smith – to the extent that while he may or may not have “had access” to the draft document itself, he was well aware of its likely contents in late July, and had taken steps that resulted in the submission being quashed. Yet this week, Smith has played the innocent. Dirty waters, indeed.


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    1. 17 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on Nick Smith’s latest steps to undermine river quality”

    2. By Rob Taylor on Sep 19, 2013 | Reply

      There is also the issue of Nick Smith’s persistent stupidity in thinking that he can get away with blatant political interference in the work of civil servants.

      After all, we have been here before, haven’t we?

    3. By Dw on Sep 19, 2013 | Reply

      The man is scum. A supposed environmentalist who takes every opportunity to compromise environmental law and quality. Now we have him also inferring in Auckland housing. He’s a pathetic joke and should quit parliament for his continued lies.

    4. By John on Sep 19, 2013 | Reply

      Gordon Campbell’s left wing views are very well known, but that is OK. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, he should deal with facts and not listen to the Labour and Greens propaganda. I watched Parliament both yesterday and today and thought that Nick Smith’s explanation was both valid and logical.Today his assertion that he did not see the 30 page DOC submission on 29 July was confirmed by Dora Johnson. Smith had every right to demand a full briefing on what DOC intended to say. Not just two paragraphs.

    5. By phil on Sep 19, 2013 | Reply

      Nick is very capable of dancing on the head of a pin. I wonder whether he could be stood down again? The government is adept at having important matters fall between the cracks of government responsibility. I. e. leaky homes, Pike River, Rena debacle, TVNZ7, Fonterra botulism scare, SKY Casino/poker machines, Bathurst, Christchurch rebuild

    6. By Kevin McCready on Sep 19, 2013 | Reply

      I don’t think you read the article properly. No-one is saying Nick “saw” the submission. He didn’t need to. Doris clearly outlined its contents and Gordon described what happened next. Please read the article again and tell us what you think. Should DOC have submitted the researched submission or the bowdlerised submission?

    7. By Mes on Sep 20, 2013 | Reply

      What’s important here is that Smith told parliament he had given no indication of what the submission should say. Yet clearly he did to Doris Johnson for her to email staff saying the Monister had concerns. He lied in parliament. Sackable offence in most people’s books.

    8. By John on Sep 20, 2013 | Reply

      The e-mail from Doris Johnson certainly does not give any indication that Smith influenced what the DOC submission should say. He was not satisfied with only 2 paragraphs and neither he should be. Doris Johnson made the position quite clear yesterday by confirming that Smith did not interfere with the DOC submission other than seeking a full briefing.I prefer to deal in facts not conspiracy theories. It would be nice if Gordon Campbell would print yesterday’s statement by Doris Johnson.

    9. By Rob Taylor on Sep 20, 2013 | Reply

      Nick Smith’s claim that he was completely unaware of the existence of a draft submission is exposed as a lie by DOC’s 29 July report to Smith, wherein they advise him:

      “The Department’s preliminary view is that a submission should be lodged to the plan change in the name of the Director-General requesting… an independent peer review of the proposed approach (and) potential effect… on the freshwater values in the Tukituki catchment.”

    10. By rob Taylor on Sep 20, 2013 | Reply

      On the face of it, Nick Smith is a corrupt and incompetent Minister, in a corrupt and incompetent government that is afflicted with an epidemic of memory loss.

      What kind of Minister of Conservation blatantly conspires to turn our rivers into open sewers of dairy effluent?

    11. By Galeandra on Sep 20, 2013 | Reply

      The kind of minister that people like John prefer?
      The whole government is riddled with hair-splitting prevaricators. Whether their activities involve concealing vested interest, socialised handouts for for ‘mates, or political distraction through stereotyping the poor and the downtrodden, there’s a complacent set of very comfy folk who’ll put up with anything so long as it’s at no cost to them or their interests.

    12. By rob stowell on Sep 20, 2013 | Reply

      In some ways this looks like yet another example of rampant managerialism, the ‘know-nothing-about-anything-but-know-which-way-the-wind-is-blowing’ approach to running things. If you appoint the right managers, they’ll do all your dirty work. Increasingly we get managers who are adept at working the hierarchy, but have no knowledge- or interest- in the area of their management. Education, health, every sector you can name. Always looking for ‘efficiency’ (get out yr gun :)) and the ‘appropriate balanced allocation of (scarce) resources.’ Writing off a river (they’ve never seen it, is it even real) is all in a day’s work. ‘Specially if it keeps the boss happy.

    13. By G Henderson on Sep 21, 2013 | Reply

      A sordid business. John Key, Nick Smith & their mates think they can let the dairy industry destroy our rivers in return for votes. Along with Federated Farmers, they are all in favour of more cows on the land, irrespective of the environmental damage.

      What makes it worse is the underlying political chicanery. The wimpish attitude displayed by DoC staffers on the Ruataniwha report reflects how the spirit of the public service has been eroded.

    14. By G Henderson on Sep 21, 2013 | Reply

      Further to the DoC aspect.

      What is hard to understand is the way the DoC report ostensibly proceeded. No government department undertakes work on a big project without first scoping the nature and extent of the job. You don’t do a lot of work and then ask whether it’s within your brief.

      Also, I don’t like the way Dr Smith appears to have laid blame on junior DoC staff. Those staff would have been acting under instructions from senior DoC personnel.

    15. By H MacDonald on Sep 23, 2013 | Reply

      The recent contretemps over the Ruataniwha dam on the East Coast opens up a whole can of worms – not merely that government (represented by the Minister of Conservation) considers that the demand for water for irrigation in the area is such that the acknowledged damage to the Tikitiki River is “acceptable”

      The Department staff have always been instructed that they must not “embarrass” the Minister. Despite that, there is no doubt that excision of the scientific freshwater and habitat values expressed by DOC’s experts has meant that DOC has failed in its various functions clearly spelt out by statute.

      Section 6 Conservation Act describes the (relevant) functions of the Department as:
      management, for conservation purposes, land held under the Act (and “other” land with the owner’s agreement) and “natural …resources” on that land;
      preservation of, “as far as practicable”, indigenous freshwater fisheries and protection of recreational freshwater fisheries and freshwater fish habitats;
      advocacy of the conservation of natural resources “generally” (that is, not limited to DOC’s specific management role) and
      promotion to “present and future generations” the conservation of natural resources “generally” (that is, not limited to New Zealand) and of New Zealand “in particular”.

      If DOC scientific experts found that the proposed dam would lead to toxicity of the “freshwater fish habitat”, as appears to be the case, present and future generations (of not only people but the fish and other organisms) will be denied access to water that “sustains” life.

      What part of “preservation”, “advocacy” and “promotion of conservation of natural resources for present and future generations” is not understood by the Minister of Conservation, Nick Smith?

      The Minister was reported as saying that DOC’s submission had to be limited to the effects of the proposed dam on DOC managed public land as he has another role for the Environmental Protection Agency as the final “decision-maker” and that a conflict of interest could arise. What nonense! The Department has always had a role in submitting on, for instance, coastal matters due to its RMA statutory reponsibilities for the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement: both on drafts of the Policy itself coastal permit submissions, and, in many instances, when the Minister had final sign-off as in the (now deleted) Restricted Coastal Activities. The Department also submitted on the recent New Zealand King Salmon proposals in the Marlborough Sounds – for which the Minister signed of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Board of Enquiry decision.

      Whether or not the Minister of Conservation, Nick Smith, sighted DOC’s draft Ruataniwha submission, commented, and as a result had the final submission to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Board of Enquiry altered, is reasonably irrelevant.

      Can this action be taken by the Minister, in view of the far-reaching recent changes to the Department’s structure, be a sign of things to come?

    16. By B Eadington on Sep 25, 2013 | Reply

      That DoC submit on risks is doubly important for Ruataniwha, compared to other proposed irrigation schemes.
      All other govt agencies responsible for looking at water quality risks have been taken out of the game. Normally the regional council is the impartial adjudicator. But this time they are the applicant. Normally MfE could weigh in with comments on environmental effects. But this time they are the adjudicator (EPA). Normally someone could hire NIWA to assess the risks. But this time they have been secured by the applicant so they are conflicted.
      Who is left? DoC; who despite what the senior staff said, didn’t have to spend hundreds of thousands to support a submission. All they needed to do was raise the questions and put the burden of proof back on the applicant. “Show us how this is safe”.
      Who is left now? The increasingly burnt out ENGOs, relying on their members subscriptions to fund what should be a core advocacy role of our environmental agencies. And, having to scramble at the last minute to shore up submissions that they would have been expecting DoC to share the burden with them on. So it’s not just that Doc did a last minute U turn, it’s that their natural allies were left in the lurch by that u turn. Cock up or conspiracy, to further weaken the submissions challenging whether this is such a good idea, by wrong footing them at the last moment?
      And, if this is such a great proposal, why are the proponents leaning SO hard on anything that paints it in a less flattering light? It should be robust enough to survive any of these challenges.

    17. By G Henderson on Sep 26, 2013 | Reply

      Fish & Game NZ are the lawfully appointed guardians of water and other wildlife resources. Forest and Bird do a good job too, but it is F & G, funded solely by the licence fees from anglers and hunters, who stand up for water quality and oppose dams which destroy our wild and scenic rivers. Look at their website. Federated Farmers hate F & G for cutting off their free lunch.

      As an example, F & G got the proposed Ngakawai dam in NW Nelson stopped some years ago. They also get water conservation orders placed on our best rivers (politicians loath WCOs because they preserve the river for future generations). Incredible as it seems, water in NZ is free to any bludger who wants to take it; Meridian Energy being one. Read Sam Mahon’s book “The Water Thieves” about Canterbury water theft and chicanery.

    18. By phil on Sep 28, 2013 | Reply

      This is not a good look for Nick, or his government. DOC! what a misnomer! Department Of Cor … You fill it in. I’m too scared of the GOVT spies!

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