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25 years for Environment Parliamentary Commisioner

Environment Spokesperson
18 August 2011

Speech to mark the 25th anniversary of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

As Labour’s Environment Spokesperson it gives me great pleasure to say a few words to help mark the 25th Anniversary of the establishment of the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

My senior parliamentary colleagues tell me that, over the years, the commissioners have been consistently sincere, independent and efficient watchdogs for the environment, and have been realistic in their approaches to their role. My dealings as environment spokesperson have all been with Dr Wright, and I can certainly say that these have been hallmarks of her approach to the job.

I want to mention in particular her reports on the State of Environment; Smart Meters; Biofuels; Mining in the conservation estate; Lignite; and 1080. Each of these has been an excellent example of independent, evidence-based research. Each of them has proved invaluable to me as source documents as I propose Labour’s environment platform for the coming election.

I’m proud that Labour legislated in 1986 to establish both the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner, and the Ministry for the Environment.

In the Hansard for 15 July 1986, New Zealand’s inaugural Minister for the Environment, Hon Phil Goff, reminded the House that “(t)he office of parliamentary commissioner is a bold and unique innovation, without precedent anywhere in the world”.

Phil Goff went on to predict that “(t)he commissioner will have a watchdog role. He or she will be our environment auditor, working to ensure that at the end of the day we have struck the right balance between development and conservation.”

25 years on, Nick Smith proposes adding a major new function to the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner, reporting every five years on the state of the environment at a national level.

Labour is willing to consider supporting this proposal, since if it is done well, it could complete Phil Goff’s original vision for the office 25 years ago – as one of “environmental auditor”. But we would want to see the following:

• The new function needs to be conferred by legislating for a truly independent, nationwide, regular reporting framework. A statutory power to specify standards and require data from relevant authorities, including Regional Councils and CRIs, seems likely to be required, but we need the explicit advice of the Parliamentary Commissioner herself on these issues;

• The Parliamentary Commissioner needs to be adequately and transparently resourced for taking on the new reporting role. The current system, involving a behind-the-scenes bid for the support of the Speaker via the Offices of Parliament Committee for budget bids to be resourced by the Executive, is unlikely to be fit for purpose for the major work likely to be required by the proposed reporting function. And no opposition will want to see the other on-going work of the Parliamentary Commissioner fall by the wayside because of the demands of the reporting role;

• The details of the new role need to be negotiated with other parties. This may not require unanimity across Parliament, but it should require a good faith attempt at consensus. The Parliamentary Commissioner is not a department or crown entity. The office is a vital parliamentary resource, and the manner in which it performs its functions should be something broadly agreed. This includes the timing of the first report under the new system – the last time we had a report on the state of the environment from a Parliamentary Commissioner was 2007, so if 5-yearly reporting is agreed to be desirable, this process should get under way promptly;

• Finally, there needs to be a genuine opportunity for public input into the proposal. I am not sure that a short consultation period in the lead-up to a general election will do. But certainly Labour encourages people to take every available opportunity to have their say. We will judge the merits of the consultation process by the extent to which that actually happens.

I conclude by congratulating and thanking both Dr Wright and her predecessors on a job that has been truly well done. Here’s to the next 25 years.


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