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The Nation: Environment Minister David Parker

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Environment Minister David Parker

This week’s freshwater announcement drew both praise and criticism from across the political spectrum.

Proposed new standards would see farmers and councils held responsible for freshwater quality in a bid to protect waterways “under serious threat”.

Simon Shepherd unpacked some of these latest government promises with Environment Minister David Parker.

Simon Shepherd: Welcome to the show. Good morning.

David Parker: Good morning.

You promised swimmable rivers in a generation. How long is a generation?

Well, it’s a number of decades.

A number of decades?

Yeah. What we’ve promised is within five years, we’ll have turned the corner and got things getting better rather than getting worse. And many parts of the country, they’re still getting worse.

So a generation is a number of decades. That’s, what, two decades? Three decades? Four decades? Are you putting any target on it?

Well, look, I’ll be long gone in politics, whichever of those is true. I think my job is to stop things getting worse and getting them on an upward track and, you know, and then I think society will give land users a generation to fix things up. I don’t think we should, you know, fixate on whether it’s 20 years or 30 years.

Labour failed to deliver on KiwiBuild and the capital gains tax. How can we trust that Labour’s capable of turning this around in five years?

Well, trust me, I know what I’m doing.

Well, see, it’s a question of trust.

Well, actually, on this, I do know what I’m doing. And, you know, the quality of the work from, you know, the scientific advisory group, the freshwater leaders group, the Māori group led by dairy farmers, I think we’re landing it.

All right. So one of those advisory groups is being how Māori, sort of, you know, contemplates water and how the mana of the water is being taken into account. It’s different to how it has been in the past. Why are you introducing those kinds of terms now into how water is being seen?

Well, Te Mana o te Wai as a concept is in the national policy statement on freshwater management; we’re just elevating it. It’s effectively saying it’s about the intrinsic worth of water. It says that you should serve the needs of the river first. Someone sent me a text during the week saying, ‘Someone needs to speak for the rivers, cos the rivers can’t speak for themselves.’ So you put the health of the river first, human needs second and commercial uses third.

So the health of the river comes before humans?

Well, there’s no healthy water for humans out of the river if the river is not healthy, so yes.

So do you think people are going to be happy with the fact that this is quite a radical approach to conserving water or making waterways healthy?

I don’t consider it radical at all. Indeed, you know, I think the world’s got a lot of environmental problems, as we all see – burning fires in the Amazon, forest fires inside the Arctic Circle, depleted fisheries, coral reefs. You know, if New Zealand can’t deal with our share of these environmental problems, then who can? But we can. It’s not going to be the end of farming as we know it.

Well, let’s talk about that, okay? Because the proposed cut of some nitrate reduction in certain catchment areas leaves up to 80%. That’s infuriated Federated Farmers, who say that, you know, some businesses, some farmers will go out of business – they can’t meet those levels. What do you say to that?

Well, they’re reactionary comments. I noted that the president of Federated Farmers walked back a wee bit from them yesterday. And I know that there’s divided views within the farming community. All we’re really asking is for the best practice for use by everyone. There’s a long time to make these adjustments. There will be some change in the way in which land is used, but you’re not going to see wholesale movement of land out of pastoral farming.

You’re not?

No.

Okay.

I’ll give you two examples of things that can be done in Canterbury. We know that if you are more careful about how you use irrigation, you can reduce your nitrate losses by 20% because you’re not flushing the nitrates into the aquifers or the rivers and you’re still leaving them in the root zone for plants.

That’s 20%.

Well, that’s a big start.

That’s a big start, but isn’t the average reduction needed to be 27% across all farms, and in some areas down in Canterbury, up to 80%?

Well, then you add to that plantain, which is a new forage crop, which both utilises nitrogen better and also causes the cows to have smaller urine patches, which are the cause of the problem.

So you’re saying there are tools there?

There are lots of tools, yeah.

Are you happy for some businesses to be collateral damage that we pay as a nation for clean waterways?

No, I’m not. And indeed the things that bite here are rules that stop things getting worse. You know, you can’t make things better if they’re still getting worse. And so there are strict rules on the quantity of the risky practices that are causing these problems growing. Because if we don’t stop things getting worse, the clean-up, it’ll take longer, it’ll cost more, and it’ll be harder to do. So we’ve got to halt these things getting worse before we can make them better.

Okay. Do you think that Federated Farmers represents the farming community, or have they gone rogue when they’re saying those sorts of things that you have labelled absurd?

Well, I think they’ve often pleaded for delay. The Minister of Agriculture, on the day, said their accusations were absurd and reactionary. And I think they were. But I don’t think that’s a universal view from within the Feds.

It’s hard to move forward in unity when you have that kind of disparity or disagreement with such a big lobby group.

Well, with power comes the responsibility to exercise it responsibly. And we can’t just wait till everyone agrees, because there are some people who don’t want to move from poor practice to good practice. And, you know, there are plenty within the agricultural community, including the farmers and dairy leaders that were on these advisory groups who say that we actually need a regulatory underpinning to actually make the laggards catch up.

Okay. What economic analysis have you done in terms of the wider economic impact of this kind of waterways clean-up?

We’ve costed the likely work for dairy farmers to be about 1% of revenue, the sheep and beef about 3% of revenue.

And is 1% or 3% going to force people, push them to the wall? Is it that close?

I don’t believe so, and I would note that dairy farmers already spend a lot on their environmental measures. So it’s not new to them to have to look after the waterways, and they’ve made a lot of progress. They’ve fenced most of the waterways over a metre wide on their dairy platforms.

Well, that’s right. So one of the issues about that, in terms of winter grazing, you’re talking about pushing up to 5 metres away from waterways, and they’ve already just done this 1 metre. And so they’re having to re-do, re-do, re-do. Has the goalpost moved?

Well, there’ll be— I actually agree that someone who’s just put in a fence won’t have to move it.

Right, okay. They won’t have to move it?

Well, we’re consulting on options around that. But as a fence comes up for renewal, if it’s just right next to water and there’s no riparian planting next to it, the fence is actually so close to the waterway it doesn’t filter out the sediment or the nutrients. So some of those fences over time will have to be moved.

Okay, so you sound like you—

But that’s when they’re being replaced. Now, if you’re putting in a new fence, it should be 5 metres away from the waterway.

Okay, is there any other sort of reduction levels or any other kind of wriggle room for farmers here? Or is all the rest of it just, ‘You’ve got to do this. It’s our way or the high way.’

Well, the strictest rules are to stop the quantity, for example, of some of this winter grazing that we’ve got in Southland which is smothering our estuaries, you know, killing the cockles, filling up our estuaries. You know, we’ve got whitebait close to becoming extinct in some parts of the country. Those rules are quite strict. We can’t have an increase in the quantity of those risky practices. And we’re also regulating for best practice of those risky practices, cos, you know, the best farmers should be matched by everyone else.

Okay. So, the toughening up of all these rules, how do you think, as Trade Minister one of our biggest export earners, or 60% of exports?

Well, it’s actually key to maximising our values. You know, we try to sell our products into the highest value markets in the world. Those consumers are increasingly interested in environmental stewardship. And I see that as Trade Minister, we’re addressing these things coming up, not just in climate, but also in terms of water quality.

So, it’s true to our brand as a country?

Well, we pride ourselves on having a clean, green brand, you know? It’s not really real if people can’t pop down to their local river in summer, pop their head under without getting crook, and that’s essentially what we’re trying to achieve here.

We’ve been focusing on the rural community so far. But what about city-dwellers? I mean, how should they be adapting? What responsibilities should they have here?

Well, they’ve got similar responsibilities, and there are rules in this package which require wastewater and sewerage discharges to be upgraded, and they should be.

So urban rivers, are they going to be swimmable within a generation as well?

I would hope so. Some of them still are. But others, like the Heathcote and the Avon, need to be improved, and I’m sure they will be over a generation. Auckland’s just brought forward $900 million of expenditure to separate sewerage from storm water, or storm water from sewerage. And when they’ve done that, within ten years, there’ll be a 90% reduction in storm water onto our beaches.

So, some are doing it. OK, this is a sort of national view of the whole clean up the waterways—

Doesn’t sound like it’s a National view, actually.

But what I’m saying is it’s going to come down to the regional councils. And they’ve got five years to get their plans in place, but who’s going to make sure that the regional councils — which have had sort of a mixed-review on implementing water standards — who’s going to make sure that the regional councils are implementing these things?

Well, there’s help on the way there. You know, this $219 million package that we had in the budget to help farmers has also got some money in there to help regional councils.

Sure, that’s money for them, but what about a body over the top like a water commission?

Like a commission.

Yeah, like a water commission.

Well, you know, we’re going to consider that in the wider RMA review.

You are?

Yeah, it’s one of the wider recommendations from the old Land and Water Forum, now the Waitangi Tribunal. In the meantime we’ve sort of got a halfway house in that we’ve got this new planning process that’s supposed to be legislated that has a roving panel water commissioners headed by an environment court judge who’ll be helping councils put these plans in within 5 years, and councils want that.

All right, just finally, there’s nothing in this plan to address the issue of Māori water rights; why isn’t there?

Well, there is in respect to water quality, which is where we said we’d start.

We’re talking about ownership, not water quality.

Well, you know, the ownership debate one is difficult, and it doesn’t take you very far. Whether everyone owns water or no one owns water, it’s true that some people have rights and interests in water that others don’t have, including people who currently have water permits and Māori rights and interests. So, we’ve promised that we’re going to move to that next, and we will.

Okay. David Parker, Environment Minister, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you.


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