New government – new hope for New Zealand’s waterways?

10 Nov 2017 by The Million Metres team Auckland Council Northland

The new government parties stressed the need to restore New Zealand’s waterways in the election. Their manifestos indicate a desire to do more, but what can we expect from them in power?

Many people who care about the waterways of New Zealand were frustrated at the last government’s response. Failure to get to grips with the issue may have contributed to National’s downfall. In making his final decision Winston Peters said New Zealand had voted for change. But how much change, and how fast, will we see on waterway restoration?

David Parker is Labour's new Environment Minister. The party promised to hold a Clean Waters Summit in its first 100 days. Its Clean Rivers Policy suggested employing unemployed young people in restoration projects. It committed to dialling back water quality principles to those used before the National government’s recent changes. And planned to toughen regulations for farms near waterways, with Crown lawyers ready to prosecute any breaches.

NZFirst undertook to: “Make rivers and lakes fully swimmable by town and country working together.” The party’s manifesto included provisions to hold developers responsible for their environmental impact. The party seeks to work with industry to reduce pollution and support conservation authorities. It pledged to reconsider grazing lease allocations to make them more ecologically sustainable. And it pledged to ensure public good prevailed over private profit, protecting the scenic character of wild rivers.

The Green Party’s Eugenie Sage is the new Minister of Conservation and Associate Minister for the Environment. The Greens pledged an additional $95 million for sustainable farming. And they undertook to stop further intensive dairy conversions and government subsidies for large irrigation schemes. Instead, they would charge for irrigation, increase fencing and refuse new large-scale water storage schemes.

They share a good deal in terms of aspiration. But how will the coalition parties plot a course through their various proposals? Already the idea of a levy on commercial water use, supported by both Labour and the Greens, has been quashed by NZFirst.

We spoke to Dr Mike Joy Ecology, Senior Lecturer in Ecology/ Zoology at Massey University. He has been an outspoken critic of the New Zealand government’s record on freshwater protection. He has also been a Million Metres supporter from our very beginnings.

Mike said it was difficult to tell how things would progress without seeing the detail. But he said we should be cautious if the announcement to include agriculture in the Emission Trading Scheme was anything to go by.

“The 95% discount makes that just lip service,” he said. “If they are going to be reacting like that it’s just going to be talk. We have had nine years of talk, and no action.”

He said the previous government had stifled the Land and Water Forum, which had been intended to unite stakeholders around possible solutions.

“Instead they weakened the guidelines that had been in place,” he explained. “Any suggestion the forum came up with that would have helped was ignored.”

Forest and Bird also withdrew from the forum in March, arguing that its recommendations had been bypassed.

Clearly it will take a genuine change in approach to bring all parties back to the table.

Georgina Hart, project lead for Million Metres Streams, said: “The decline in our water quality that created the current crisis didn't just happen in the last nine years. But the last government certainly didn't respond with the urgency required. We are eager to see if that will now change.

“What inspires us is the way ordinary Kiwis and New Zealand businesses are getting on with the job anyway. We won’t be waiting around for the government to continue that work. But we would be delighted to work with them.”