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The Nation Environment Debate with Amy Adams & Russel Norman

On the Nation: Environment Debate with Amy Adams & Russel Norman

Lisa Owen: Now, this week's campaign debate. As a handful of islands at the bottom of the world, New Zealand is an environmental treasure, and as Kiwis, we're proud of being clean and greenish. But putting that environment to work is also how we earn a living — Farming, drilling, having people over to visit. So can we strike a balance between the environment and the economy? Or do we have some tough choices to make? This morning, I'm joined by National's Amy Adams and the Greens' Russel Norman. Good morning to you both. Minister, if I can come to you first. National has announced new freshwater standards, but that still would mean that there's a huge number of our waterways that you couldn't swim in. How do you sell that as part of the Kiwi way of life?

Amy Adams: What it actually means is that, for the first time ever, we're gonna be setting standards from central government to say this is the absolute minimum expectation, and beyond that, communities decide how and where they manage their water bodies — which areas they use for swimming and which they don't. That's entirely new. We've never had that before in New Zealand, so it's a considerable step forward for water management, and it's going to lead to a considerable improvement in those rivers and waterways that are currently below those bottom lines.

But don't you want your kids to be able to nip down to the local river, down to the Selwyn River, and jump in without any concerns? I mean, that's not up to scratch in parts. Don't you want that for your kids?

Adams: I do, and actually, I trust that our communities will work through and make sensible decisions about which water bodies they use for swimming and which they don't.

But you can't guarantee that with your new standards. I mean, you're prepared to take moderate risk of infection in wading and boating?

Adams: But if you think about where we are now, Lisa, there's no rule at all. So councils can set anything they like. What we've done is put in place a brand-new standard. There's never been a national bottom line from a central government. It's a bottom line, and then beyond that, communities work through where they want to swim. So, if you think about it, there's 425,000km of waterways in New Zealand. A few of those are used for swimming, but many, many are drainage systems and storm water run-off channels, and to manage all of those for swimming, I think, would be nonsense. What we're gonna do is say to local communities, 'Absolutely, we expect that you'll work through, identify which rivers you want to swim in, and go through it, and assess the cost of going that, and come up with a sensible solution'. If we were to make a blanket rule across New Zealand, the cost could potentially run into the billions of dollars.

Mr Norman, too expensive to make all our rivers swimmable, and the minister is saying even though that's your policy, is that realistic, your policy? Or is it a pipe dream?

Russel Norman: Oh, well, I think it's very realistic. So it's a question of targets that we set. So the National policy statement on freshwater management that was originally proposed, it came from David Sheppard, former principal court judge of the Environment Court. Set some very clear targets, and what we're saying is, 'This is the debate. Do we want targets around swimability or the target that the Government has now set, which is wadeability?' It's gotta be safe to wade in, though even then, there's a one in 20 chance that you could get seriously ill by wading. And that is really, I think, an environmental but an economic decision about the future of our primary sector. And when we've analysed, you know, what's the value of our 'clean green' brand, Ministry for the Environment did do some analysis about this some time ago, and what it suggested was that if we lose that brand, the cost to dairy alone is about $500 million a year. The cost of tourism is $900 million a year. So it's incredibly expensive to go down the pollution economy path, and of course, it means that our kids can't swim in our rivers. So I think there's actually a great synergy between a cleaner economy and a smarter economy and also protecting the environment, because they both go together. The alternative, which is what National's proposing, will in the long run undermine our 'clean green' brand, and hence the dairy sector, the tourism sector and mean that we can't swim in our rivers.

Adams: What exactly the issue is it's not a target. What we said is not a target. What we've said is not a target. What we've said is a bottom line. Beyond that, communities will set the targets. But I fully expect that most of them will set swimability in those core rivers—

Your bottom line doesn't set swimability.

Adams: Our bottom line is the first New Zealand has ever had. Currently, before us, and what the Labour-Greens government were quite happy with was leave it entirely to communities to set anything. We've said, 'Actually, there is a minimum expectation around ecosystem health and human health.' And then communities can decide for themselves where they choose to swim and monitor for that. And the Greens have never explained to us what the cost of their proposal is. They've simply come out with a sound bite. We've costed our proposals, and they haven't.

So I'll give Russel Norman a right of reply there. But I just want to know — what percentage of our rivers and lakes will be swimmable, then, do you imagine?

Adams: Well, look, actually, most of our rivers and lakes are already managed to a very high standard and can be swum in. And I think communities will want to—

60%? 80%?

Adams: Well, actually, the interesting thing at the moment is they only measure a couple of hundred sites across New Zealand. There's 425,000km, and they only measured—

And at monitored sites, 60% are not swimmable.

Adams: The sites that they know there's a problem in—

60%.

Adams: No, well, they're not. They haven't said they're not swimmable. They said after a high level of rain, they can be a risk. Actually, that's 94 specific sites across 425,000, and the councils and communities are working very hard to address that. But if you set a blanket rule for Wellington that dictates to communities what they can and can't do, the reality is it will impose potentially billions of dollars of costs. Now, communities have to make that decision as to where they swim in.

Now, Russel Norman, the minister has said you haven't put a price tag on what it's gonna cost. What is it going to cost?

Norman: So think about the transition we made. In the past, the dairy sector was allowed to pour their affluent directly into rivers, right, and then we said no. You can't do that, so we've put in some terrible environmental rules. So they had to go through effluent ponds. And then the dairy sector found that, actually, the effluent they could spray back on the land and save money from fertiliser. So what happens is when you put in place an environmental constraint like you can't just pour the effluent straight into a river, then you get this innovation, and that's exactly what's gonna happen in the dairy sector.

But how much is it gonna cost? You saying it in swings and roundabouts, but give me a bottom line. How much is it gonna cost.

Norman: So, according to the ministry's own advice, it is more expensive to do nothing than to do something. That is the Ministry for the Environment advice about this exact issue.

But you still haven't given me... You still haven't given me a dollar figure.

Norman: Well, you can't name a dollar figure on it in the sense that neither can...

Adams: We've cost it out.

Norman: Well, actually, we've looked at your analysis, and what the ministry said is that if you do nothing, it's much more expensive than if you do something, because the volume-led strategy that the dairy corporations, that the Government is promoting, all right, means that we will destroy the rivers and, in the process, destroy the brand that underpins the New Zealand export sector. Tourism, agri-food is entirely built on clean, green and safe. Now, let's deal with the monitored sites question—

I want to ask the minister about this. You're talking about increasing in the number of dairy cows that we have, and we know that since 2008, we've added half a million more dairy cows to the national herd. That produces the same amount of waste as 7 million people. So Mr Norman's right, isn't he? If we continue on this path, inevitably, your policy of increasing dairy is going to do further environmental damage?

Adams: A couple of things here. First of all, actually, water pollution is not just an agriculture and dairy issue. Absolutely, they have a part of it, but we can't ignore the fact that our most polluted waterways are in urban areas. So, yes, the dairy and agriculture sector has a part to play in this. But, actually, the difference between National and the Greens, fundamentally, is that we believe you can grow the productive base and the jobs and the economy in New Zealand and improve the environment.

Well, hang on a minute. I just want to talk to you about that point. Minister, you're saying that you can have things hand-in-hand? You can have growth, and you can have a good environment? Well, actually, the environmental commissioner says, no, you can't. That your goal is to double agriculture exports by 2025, and the environment commissioner has called that a classic economic versus environment dilemma and went on to say that you need to take urgent steps to slow the expansion of dairying or more rivers and lakes would be degraded. You cannot have both, according to one of our experts. You can't have both.

Adams: I don't accept that, Lisa. In fact, we're seeing farmers across New Zealand considerably change their farming systems and move to much better environmental footprint for their production, and what we're moving to now with a regulated system of how we control what is lost from the farm into the water bodies is seeing already—

So Jan Wright's got it wrong?

Norman: Yeah. You're saying everyone's got it wrong.

Adams: Dr Norman's report covered the period under the Labour—Greens government and then said if nothing changed, it would get worse.

Right. Mr Norman?

Norman: So let's just get a few facts on the table. So over 60% of monitored sites now are unsafe for swimming. If you look at across all our lowland rivers in pastoral and urban environments, it's probably over 90%, according to Dr Mike Joy, one of our leading freshwater scientists. Now, of course, the minister doesn't like scientists, but that's what the scientists say. If you look at the overarching picture, the picture is, 'Are there ecological limits within which we're working?' How many cows can we have, right? There's real constraints because we live in a real world. So what we've got to do in the agri-food sector is go, 'We need to add more value rather than more volume.' And the sector says this. I go and talk to the sector a lot, and that's what they say they want to do. One way to actually nudge them in that direction is say, 'We're gonna have clean-water rules in place so you can't continue to increase pollution into rivers.' And there'll be constraints around greenhouse emissions, and that will actually push the sector in the direction that we all need it to go.

So you don't think we'll have to sacrifice any jobs or any economic growth?

Norman: It's absolutely the opposite because the institute of agri-food based at Massey University has all the major players in it. What they're all saying is, in the agri-food sector, we need to protect clean, green and safe. That's the brand that underpins it all. And we need to move up the value chain and own more of the value chain from here to China and everywhere else and invest more in R&D. That's exactly what the Greens are doing and exactly what National's opposed to.

Isn't the flipside of the environmental commission's argument that there will be less jobs and less dairying growth?

Norman: No, because what Jan was saying was 'you can't have more volume'. See, the current strategy of the dairy sector and the National party is more and more volume — more cows, more milk powder, the last drop of milk from the last blade of grass. Actually, there's an alternative economic strategy, which is what smarter countries do and what we can do, where you go, 'Actually, we're gonna add more value to the existing volume, rather than just increase the volume, which is very low-add, simple commodities and isn't a way to get rich.'

But the minister is right when she says that a lot of the waterways that are polluted are 2km from a city and a large percentage are 10km from a city. It's not just the farmers, but it's—

Norman: That's right, so urban waterways, which is a tiny per cent of all the waterways in the country, right, compared to pastoral waterways, right? They are polluted. It's a real issue, and our standard applies to those as well. They need to be swimmable as well. We're absolutely clear about that. But we know the vast majority of catchments in New Zealand, necessarily, outside of national parks and stuff, those catchments are pastoral catchments. And in those catchments in the low land areas, water is very polluted because of this big wave of intensification that's happening.

Is your policy an anti-jobs policy? As National would have us believe that you're taking us down the cul-de-sac of no growth.

Norman: It's actually the exact opposite, and it's exactly what the institute says we should do — we should add value rather than volume. The volume strategy will absolutely crash into the 'clean, green and safe' brand and destroy it, because that's where it's going. What we need to do is add value.

Adams: But actually that's a great sound bite, but you can say 'add value', but actually we haven't seen any strategy from the Greens as to how we're gonna do it.

Norman: Yes, R & D investment, a billion-dollar R & D investment.

Adams: What we've said is that we can continue to grow the size of our productive base; we can continue to add jobs as long as we do it in a way that reduces our environmental footprint. We know that that's possible. It's happening now. The Greens want to approach this by shutting down industry, shutting down jobs, limiting what New Zealanders can do. We say, 'Absolutely, we need to grow opportunities for New Zealanders, but we must reduce the environmental footprint.' I know that's possible because I've seen it happening right now.

Mr Norman, before we go to the break, I want to ask, is it the Greens' intention to still charge people for irrigation water?

Norman: It is. There should be some price. We would negotiate with the industry what that price should be for irrigation water.

Adams: So they haven't told us.

Norman: If you're an urban industrial user, you pay a price per unit for water.

Adams: No, you don't. That's not right.

Norman: No, it is right.

Adams: No, it isn't.

Norman: But in the rural areas, you don't pay a price per unit, so the dairy corporations that Amy represents here don't wanna pay.

So you're gonna charge farmers who are taking irrigation water. You're going to charge them for that privilege.

Adams: They're gonna charge farmers and only farmers. They won't charge anyone else.

Norman: What the OECD says—

Are you going to charge farmers?

Norman: Yes, so what the OECD says is that we need a price on water.

Adams: How much?

How much, Mr Norman, are you going to charge? You said 10C per thousand litres in 2011. Would that be the same charge?

Norman: No. So what we said in— What we'll be saying when we release our policy around this is that we'll negotiate with the sector as to the right price, because every economist on this issue says if you want to drive efficiencies through the sector, you need a price on the use of irrigation water. So that's why we need—

Adams: If this was about efficiencies, they would be charging it to all water users, and they're not, and the fact that the Greens are promoting a water tax on one set of water users only—

Norman: That's not right; it's on everybody.

Adams: No, absolutely not.

Norman: Currently, industrial users in urban environments have to pay, and you don't.

Adams: The policy that the Greens and Labour have put out is a water tax. They won't tell us how much, and it only applies to farmers.

Norman: That's not true. That's completely untrue.

Adams: If this was about water efficiency, it would absolutely apply to all users. They make it very clear it won't.

Mr Norman, why not name the price before the election so that you know you've got a mandate to bring a policy like that in? Why not?

Norman: So two points — industrial users in urban environments currently do pay for water.

Adams: They pay for infrastructure; they don't pay for water.

Norman: You ask anyone within Auckland. Secondly, we think the best way to deal with this issue is to work with the industry, because we need a price that is a price signal as to what it should be. We wanna work with the industry to set it.

Adams: So you won't tell us.

So you won't tell us the price, and you won't tell us before the election.

Norman: Well, we want to talk to the industry to set it.

Adams: They won't tell us.

All right. If I can come to you, Amy Adams, National wants to reform the Resource Management Act. Tell me briefly, what's wrong with it?

Adams: Well, the RMA has the lowest satisfaction score with the New Zealand public across all the services that central and local government offer, and largely that's because it's incredibly complex; it's very, very expensive to work your way through; it's almost impossible to work out what you can and can't do with your land; and it's seeing, frankly, hundreds of millions of dollars go to consultants, planners and lawyers when New Zealanders just want an answer about what they can and can't do on their property. We think we can make it a lot simpler and a lot more cost-effective.

So is the main issue is it's slowing down things like consents for decks and ability to build housing which we have, arguably, a supply and shortage problem?

Adams: That's exactly right. When the RMA isn't working right, it leads to an increase in house prices; it leads to increases in costs of things like food and electricity; it means New Zealanders paying thousands of dollars for consents to remove a chimney or extend a deck. And of course we need to have a system of rules, but we need one that balances very carefully all of what we need as a society, so houses, jobs and, of course, our core environmental protections.

But hang on a minute. Isn't there a problem with that? Because Labour did offer to support you getting that piece of legislation through in terms of housing, but isn't the reality that you actually want to create a business development act rather than an environmental protection act?

Adams: Look, that's just not right. So, the parts that Labour offered to support were without the critical changes that would've made housing a principle of the RMA, so they said that they would support the housing bits, but then in terms of the reform package, they wouldn't support the core elements necessary to make that work. If we don't make, for example, housing supply land one of the critical principles of the act, then the other changes won't work, so they took the language of wanting to support, but the reality is, they wouldn't support the pieces that would've made housing affordability better.

Russel Norman, it's too complex, or is this a Trojan horse, the housing debate?

Norman: Well, a few facts — 97% of all consent applications are not even notified; they're just approved non-notified. 0.3% of all consent— 0.7% of all consent applications are appealed to the Environment Court, so it's very small. Remember, what National's trying to take out of the RMA, for example, are the references to the value of ecological integrity. Now, you'd have to ask, if the issue is building a retaining wall, why would you gut one of the key dimensions of the Resource Management Act — for example, the reference to ecological integrity? And I would argue — and I think it's plainly obvious — that the reason is that when you're running a 'pollution economy' kind of approach, you run up against environmental constraints all the time, so when they run up against environmental constraints, they're bowling them over. So, you think about the democratically elected counsellors in Canterbury. They had to be got rid of because they were protecting waterways.

Adams: But they weren't protecting waterways.

Norman: You think about the RMA. It has to be modified to remove things like the value of ecological integrity because when you run this kind of economy, which is just focused on simple commodities and pollution, it keeps hitting these environmental constraints, so they get bowled over. A different approach is you say, 'Actually, let's protect the environmental limits and respect them and build a smarter economy, invest in research and development within those limits.'

Minister, are you saying that the changes—?

Adams: The Greens want to play on those fears, but it's just not true. The vast bulk of what the RMA does is around urban planning — what we can do with our house on our section, whether you can trim a tree in your back yard, whether you can extend your fence. And the numbers Russel talks about really suggest that the vast bulk of what we consent doesn't need a consent.

In saying that, Minister, are you convinced that the changes that you want to make won't weaken environmental protections one iota?

Adams: Absolutely. In fact, I would—

Or is what you're saying that weakening the environmental protections is worth it? A little bit of weakening is OK if we can go forward economically?

Adams: No. What we've said, Lisa, is that the RMA has to provide for our social, cultural, economic and environmental outcomes. That's what the act is very clear about. And we've said, as well as considering those environmental objectives, many of which we're strengthening, in actual fact, that it's equally important that councils pay attention to things like 'Have they provided enough land for housing growth? Have they provided for necessary infrastructure in their district? Have they provided for natural hazards in their district?' That's what we wanna add in.

Russel Norman, you're on the other side of the coin, aren't you? You'd actually like to beef this up a little bit, the RMA.

Norman: Yeah, I mean, when you look at the dramatic loss of biodiversity in New Zealand over the last 10 years and under the previous government as well, when you look at water quality decline, rapid decline in water quality across the country, it's clear that the RMA isn't strong enough for protecting the environment. So, yeah, we do want to strengthen the RMA because we believe that those environmental limits are what makes New Zealand a great place to live, the fact that you can go to these wild and beautiful places. And the RMA is one of the key tools for protecting them. Why would you weaken it?

Adams: The fact that you can't trim a tree in your own backyard without going to the council is not what makes New Zealand a great place.

Norman: You're just making that up.

Adams: It's absolutely true, Russel.

Norman: It's not true.

Adams: And most New Zealanders want a system that allow them to get on with their day-to-day life without millions of dollars—

Briefly, Minister, you don't have the mandate at the moment to get these changes through. Your support partners don't want a bar of it — the Maori Party, United Future. So if you get back in government with the same political partners, are you going to accept defeat and just forget about it?

Adams: Well, look, what we've said, Lisa, is that we're gonna take this issue to the election, because we believe that most New Zealanders are sick of a system that is cumbersome, expensive and gets into telling them things like how big their front windows can be, whether the living room's at the front of their house and councils getting into...

Norman: It's about dairy corporations. That's what it's about.

Adams: That sort of level of restriction is not helping.

Norman: It's not about that.

Adams: So we're strengthening water protections on one side. We've now got the cleanest air quality on record during the work we're doing. But the urban planning side of the RMA is not working as well as it could, and we wanna see that addressed, and I think New Zealanders do too.

Brief last word to Russel Norman.

Norman: So, when dairy corporations control the government, what they do is they attack environmental protections. We have a minister for the environment that every action she's taking is about environmental degradation instead of protection. The government's heading in the wrong direction cos it's committed to the pollution economy instead of a smarter, cleaner economy.

Adams: We're committed to jobs and growth.

Thank you both for joining us this morning. That's Russel Norman and Amy Adams. Thank you.

ENDS

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