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ERMA National Conference - Hobbs Speech

26 June 2002

Hon Marian Hobbs Speech Notes

Embargoed against delivery 5.40pm Wednesday June 26

The Environmental Risk Management Authority National Conference: Regulation and beyond: innovative strategies for managing hazardous substances and new organisms in New Zealand

Keynote Address, Waipuna Conference Centre, Mt

Wellington, Auckland 5.40pm Wednesday 26 June 2002

The theme of this conference is “Regulation and beyond: innovative strategies for managing hazardous substances and new organisms in New Zealand’.

I want to share with you my thoughts on cooperation in the context of hazardous substance management. I believe that through innovative “cooperation’, we can reduce costs and improve environmental and public health outcomes at the same time.

I am then going to give you my take on what the general public thinks about genetic modification and talk about how we can move the GM debate forward.

Hazardous Substances

Whereas the new organisms part of HSNO has been operating for 4 years, the hazardous substances part is a relative baby, coming into force only last July. In this area things are really just starting to happen.

ERMA tells me that applications for new hazardous substances are arriving on their doorstep. Approvals have already been granted for release, transhipment, reassessment and containment of hazardous substances. Transfer of existing substances from previous legislation is happening - starting with fireworks and explosives. The other groups will be transferred over the next several years.

As the hazardous substances regime beds in, we will need to improve it. But I think that basically we have got it right with the HSNO legislation itself. It is a comprehensive one- stop shop that is a vast improvement on the past.

I attended an Australian ministerial council meeting last month. It was a great opportunity to learn how Australia manages risks to the environment and to talk proudly of what we do here in New Zealand.

Australia has some rather complicated and fragmented systems for chemicals management. For a start each state has its own system. In addition, there are the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme and the National Registration Authority for Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals and Products.

The Australians could well do with a single, integrated system like we have. HSNO already does what the Australians dream about. I invited the taskforce, which is being established to look at Australia’s hazardous substances policy, to come and see what we do.

You may also be interested to learn that as part of the CER arrangements we are involved in helping the Australians bring their systems in line with the best international practices which are already firmly in place in the HSNO Act and the ERMA’s operating procedures. In this regard the rather strangely named Trans Tasman Mutual Recognition Arrangement is in large measure about helping those rather fragmented parts of the Australian system talk to each other.

The legislation is basically right. But to make it work really well - we need each other’s cooperation. If central government, local government, industry, business, NGOs, and the public cooperate, we can all benefit. By working in cooperation, I believe that it is possible to reduce costs and improve environmental and public health outcomes at the same time.

It is in your and my interests for the transfer process to go smoothly. ERMA needs importers and manufacturers to supply the basic information about the substances to be transferred. The accuracy and timeliness of the transfer process can be improved with assistance. A smooth and early transfer will enable some of the benefits of operating under the HSNO Act to be realised earlier.

Another area where you can benefit through cooperation is by making joint applications for approval of new hazardous substances and by working together in developing codes of practice. In the first case there are real efficiencies to be had by using the HSNO process on groups of substances, and in the second, documenting good practice and using it will both improve hazardous substance management and allow the Act to be used efficiently.

Codes of practice are designed to provide practical day-to-day tools to comply with the requirements for hazardous substance management. While the HSNO regulations define the performance standards to be met, a code of practice is an example of how those standards can be met. Codes can be more easily changed than legislation or regulation as technology advances.

Businesses or industry associations can work together to develop codes of practice, allowing costs to be spread across the group, and more importantly improving the day to day management of hazardous substances.

An obvious starting point is existing good practice documents such as industry codes and standards. In many cases these can and should be able to be approved directly or with minor updating. The Ministry’s sustainable management fund can be used to help with this work and, with the hazardous substances part of the Act now in place I recommend people actively look at using this.

Another example of where cooperation is needed is HSNO compliance. I want to be confident that the HSNO Act is being complied with and enforced. But I can’t do this from Wellington. I need the cooperation of territorial authorities because they are the people on the spot.

As part of the budget decisions announced in May, Cabinet directed the Ministry for the Environment, along with relevant departments, to review HSNO enforcement funding. The goal of this review is to ensure there are adequate enforcement mechanisms in place by 1 April 2003, when dangerous goods are transferred to the HSNO framework. This date is important because from then hazardous substances used most days, by almost everybody, will be under the control of the main part of the Act.

My colleague, Dr Michael Cullen, the Minister of Finance has agreed that the role of local authorities in HSNO enforcement should be dealt with as the first stage of this review. We are starting with an in-depth look at the extent of current local authorities involvement in hazardous substance enforcement and emergency management, including where that involvement is not directly part of the HSNO Act - for example in relation to some gas systems.

I am committed to finding the most effective way forward to maintain local authorities’ involvement and ensure adequate HSNO enforcement in the years to come. I need the cooperation of TAs to achieve this.

This brings me back to the “innovative strategy’ theme of this conference. Problems will arise from time to time as you interact with HSNO. Don’t immediately presume that the Act is faulty and needs to be changed. Apart from being a very slow process, changing the Act can often create more problems than it solves.

Recently a company wrote to me seeking an exemption from the Act for a particular use of a hazardous substance. While the request was reasonable for its alignment with the overall purpose of the Act, there was a risk that its proposed amendment would open a route to circumvent the Act more generally. The issue needed careful scrutiny before any amendment could be considered seriously - and with the legislative programme as full as it was - there was no chance of an amendment going through this year.

But, by working together and thinking more innovatively, we came up with some immediate solutions to the problem. The company in question is now able to continue with its business.

When I talk about “innovative strategies’ I mean that we need to work innovatively, and that we need to do so together. We have a great start with HSNO but we can make it better with cooperation between sectors. Through innovative cooperation, I believe that it is possible to reduce costs and improve environmental and public health outcomes at the same time.

Genetic Modification

Now I want to talk about the genetic modification debate.

I am sure that many of you involved in ERMA processes realise the so-called GM debate is actually a discussion about risk management.

Genetic modification is a new technology and like any new technology - there are risks and benefits. GM is a generic term for a technology with many and varied applications - from identifying the gene responsible for a particular disease to improving growth rates in pine trees

While the public may not be familiar with the risk management system we have in HSNO, I believe that they do understand that the GM debate is about balancing risks and benefits. And understanding someone’s perspective has important implications for how to communicate with them.

You might think that people’s views are moulded simply by what they hear in the “sensationalist media”. European Commission research completed in December last year and carried out across five countries showed that the public is actively engaged in the interpretation and judgement of multiple forms of information, some involving mass media, some not. The research found that members of the public cannot be characterised as victims who simply absorb what is drummed into them by the media.

You might also think that people are either for or against GM - as the pressure groups who simplify the arguments into meaningless slogans do. People are not simply for or against GM. The EC research showed that people’s responses were more sophisticated and people recognised both the positive and negative dimensions of developments in GM technology. People discriminated between different types of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but this could not be reduced to a simple distinction between applications in agriculture and food, and applications in the medical field.

You might think that people want zero risk. The research showed that people did not ask for zero risk, or full certainty with respect to the impacts of GMOs. People were well aware that daily activities of ordinary lives are associated with numerous risks and benefits, which have to be balanced against one another. Moreover, they took for granted that science could never accurately predict all future impacts of a new technology. Rather, they felt strongly that inherent and unavoidable uncertainties should be acknowledged by experts, and be taken into account in decision making. It was the denial of uncertainty that people found untrustworthy.

You might think you have to be an expert to form a reasoned opinion about the risk management of genetically modified organisms. Some experts presume that people’s concerns about GM stem from emotional or subjective responses. This isn’t the case for most people.

The same European Commission study I mentioned earlier showed that people used three different types of lay knowledge, not emotion, to support their opinions on GMOs.

- Non- specialist knowledge: It seemed to participants that scientists often ignored or obscured the obvious in specialised scientific discussions. For example bees and insects fly from field to field and will spread pollen.

- Knowledge about human fallibility: Daily experience had taught people that formal rules and regulations, though well intended, would not always work in the real world.

- Knowledge about the past behaviour of institutions: There are examples, such as BSE, of the institutions responsible for the development and regulation of technological innovations and risks having failed to protect people in the past.

These are three perfectly valid sources on knowledge. I believe that experts and scientists need to take that knowledge into account when they respond to people’s concerns about GMOs.

So to move the debate forward we need to first acknowledge that there are risks from some GM technologies. We then need to explain that we have a robust, transparent and independent system in place to manage those risks to protect health and the environment.

No one would deny that New Zealand institutions have made mistakes with the introduction of new organisms into the New Zealand environment in the past. Think of how different our forests and their birdlife would be if possums, stoats and weasels had never been introduced.

New Zealand governments demonstrated that they have learnt from the mistakes of the past by introducing the new organisms legislation. Our unique environment and experiences means that we are way ahead of the rest of the world in this area.

The new organisms part of HSNO requires robust assessment of the risks and benefits of a new organism, genetically modified or not, before it is introduced into this country.

The New Zealand system, made up of ERMA and HSNO, has also been “independently audited’ and comes out well. The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification concluded that “the basic regulatory framework was appropriate”, and that “the key institutions¡Kcarry out their functions conscientiously and soundly.”

The Commission also recommended several what it called “enhancements’ and we are proceeding with these at the moment.

Like the Royal Commission, I am satisfied that the ERMA Board has the skills, systems, resources and independence to do a thorough job of assessing applications put before them. I too have confidence in the ability of the HSNO legislation to manage the risks that a particular genetically modified organism may present to public health and the New Zealand environment.


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