Environmental issues concern people across the political spectrum and solutions are not the preserve of the political left.
Environment Minister Nick Smith recognises the opportunity to seize the blue green initiative:
. . . There is more fresh thinking going on in National about how New Zealand can better manage its rich heritage of natural assets than any other party.
It was a telling comment during Election 2014 when the Greens co-leaders stated their preference for ministerial offices, with one wanting Social Development and the other Economic Development.
And there has been a vacuum in Labour thinking on environmental issues from Opposition. There was not a single major environmental plank from Labour in either of the 2011 and 2014 elections. The portfolio once attracted Labour heavyweights like Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Helen Clark in the 1980s, but their last Environment Minister Trevor Mallard was given the role as punishment for heavyweight behaviour of a different kind, with a bit of biffo with Tau Henare. There have been 10 spokespeople since.
With the Greens being distracted over leadership and identity, and Labour showing little interest in these issues, we have an opportunity to go after the Greens soft vote.
Our principles of marrying good economic and environmental policies; of underpinning our policies with good science; and of moving from a polarised conversation on environmental issues to a more collaborative approach – we can appeal to New Zealanders’ practical, down-to-earth brand of environmentalism.
Environmental protection and enhancement and economic development aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s not only possible to have both, economic growth is essential to fund environmental initiatives.
Principles are important but it is results that matter most. Let me highlight 10 achievements that we have been able to deliver on in Government.
The first is this new Aotea Conservation Park opened yesterday on Great Barrier Island and championed by local MP Nikki Kaye. We are protecting 12,000 hectares and New Zealand’s largest possum- and stoat-free forest, and some of the best stands of Maggie’s beloved kauri trees. Our $2.5 million investment in the new Aotea track opens up new opportunities for eco-tourism on the island.
The second achievement I want to highlight is our progress on marine protection. We’ve created a record number and area of new marine reserves. We are also the first Government to formally protect surf breaks, of which we have gazetted 17.
We are the Government that created the Environmental Protection Authority and a proper system for managing environmental effects in New Zealand’s huge Exclusive Economic Zone. Prior to our administration, many activities including deep sea drilling were allowed without any environmental assessment.
We also should take pride in the progress we have made in insulating over 300,000 old, cold, damp homes. The benefit from this energy efficiency initiative is not just in savings in power bills and greenhouse gas emissions, but in warmer homes and healthier families.
Nor should we be at all defensive about our progress in climate change policy. This area is notoriously difficult politics as you see in Australia where it has tripped up three consecutive prime ministers.
We successfully landed and implemented our moderated ETS in July 2010. Its initial impact has been small, with the carbon price being so low, but it is now $6.40, and is a sound platform on which to step up our efforts on climate change.
We should celebrate the progress we have made towards meeting our renewables target of 90 per cent by 2025. This is particularly telling in that through the previous two decades, New Zealand went backwards. Our policy prescription of time-constrained national consenting for major projects, genuine competition in electricity generation, and our policy of discouraging thermal generation with the ETS is working well.
Bluegreens have been at the forefront of our agenda to improve New Zealand’s freshwater management. When we came to Government, there was not even a requirement for those like irrigators extracting water from our lakes, rivers and aquifers to even meter what they took. We changed that with national regulations in 2009 in the spirit of you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
Talk of a National Policy Statement (NPS) on freshwater started in 1995 but it had gone nowhere. The Land and Water Forum helped us deliver the first NPS on freshwater in 2010 and the limit setting and minimum standards in 2014.
And we have put our money where our mouth is. We’ve committed over $350 million to clean-up initiatives, a fivefold increase on predecessors and in much more constrained financial times. We are getting real results in lakes like Rotoiti, Taupō and Waituna. Over 20,000 kilometres of rivers have been fenced.
We have also been making good progress on air pollution with the air we breathe today being the cleanest on record.
In 2009, we introduced tighter environmental standards on new and second-hand imported vehicles and toughened them again in 2012.
Fuel standards have been improved, reducing the sulphur content from 150 parts per million in 2008 first to 50ppm, and then to 10ppm.
We have also funded 40,000 conversions to cleaner home heating. These air quality improvements are saving over 100 premature deaths per year, and are more significant than more highly reported reductions in the road toll or homicide.
One of our most challenging environmental issues is the loss of so many of our native species, and particularly our birds. There was a time when the principal threat was hunting and loss of habitat, but the threat today is the stoats, rats and possums that kill 25 million of our native birds each year.
Our ninth significant achievement is Battle for our Birds, the largest pest control initiative totalling over one million hectares last year.
The tenth achievement I want to note is the New Zealand Cycle Trails. I confess that this initiative, unlike the others, did not have its genesis at a Bluegreens Forum, but came from the Prime Minister and his 2009 Job Summit. Members like Jacqui and Scott will attest to the success of these Cycle Trails in rural communities.
I list these 10 significant achievements to remind ourselves how far we’ve come, but also to inspire our work programme going forward.
The public banks political achievements and then wants more and the government has more:
The next significant initiative is the passage of the Environmental Reporting Bill, and the publishing in July of Environment Aotearoa.
New Zealand is the only OECD country to not have a statutory framework for environmental reporting. It is an anomaly out of step with our clean green brand. This new Act will rightly put our environmental management under scrutiny and improve the integrity of brand New Zealand.
We should not underestimate the power of open reporting systems to improve performance. This new Act is the environment equivalent of Ruth Richardson’s Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1993. Prior to these financial reporting requirements, New Zealand had one of the worst records of public finance management, but in the 20 years since we have moved to one of the best. It is also consistent with this Government’s National Standards policy in education, requiring the open reporting on student achievement.
The Fiscal Responsibility Act has led to better public financial management and far greater transparency. A statutory framework for environmental management should have similarly positive results.
The environment information is to be framed around five six-monthly reports covering air, atmosphere and climate, freshwater, land and marine domains, and a comprehensive State of the Environment report summarising all five domains, produced at three-yearly intervals. The reports are to be produced jointly by Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry for the Environment, with the three-yearly report audited by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.
This initiative is also part of our plan to strengthen New Zealand’s environmental institutions. The model we have been developing, not indifferent to the role of Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the Auditor-General, is a strong policy-focused Ministry, an independent regulator with the EPA we established in 2010, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment as the system auditor.
The second big reform we want to advance in this term of Parliament involves Maggie, Nathan and I in a substantive reform of New Zealand’s system of marine protection, of which we had an entrée with this morning’s panel discussion.
We should be proud of National’s heritage, being the first country in the world to legislate for no-take marine reserves in 1971, but the Act is now outdated.
It does not provide for marine protection in the huge Exclusive Economic Zone. The process for establishing reserves is cumbersome and divisive. Nor is there adequate recognition of Māori interests.
The most exciting part of the reform is providing for a range of different types of Marine Protected Areas, as has become best international practice. Our new Act will enable us to declare, as now, areas to be fully protected as marine reserves, but will also allow recreational-only fishing parks, species-specific sanctuaries, as well as seabed reserves.
This work is the logical next step to our new EEZ laws, and parallels the evolution of our regulatory system on land.
The EEZ law is about setting the rules of economic development, the ocean equivalent of our RMA. The new Marine Protected Areas law is the equivalent of our National Park and Reserves Act.
Our ambition with our fisheries quota management system, our new EEZ law and this new Marine Protected Areas law is for New Zealand to be a world leader in the responsible use and conservation of the ocean environment. The next step in this work will be releasing a discussion document.
Bluegreens recognise that the RMA is New Zealand’s most important environmental law, covering the management of water, air, biodiversity, land use, noise and the coast, as well as all the complexities of urban development, covering subdivision, building height and shading restrictions, and the provision of the transport, communication and water infrastructure to make our cities function.
In our first phase of reforms, we set up the EPA and a system for national consenting that is working well. We put together rules on councils to process consents on time that has seen late consents plummet from 15,000 per year to under 1000 per year. We passed specific law to prevent the misuse of the RMA for restricting trade competition. The more difficult issues over urban development, infrastructure and Sections 6 and 7 were put off to specialist technical advisory groups.
Pulling this advice together into a Bill that we can secure a majority in Parliament has always been challenging and even more so since the Northland By-Election but I am still confident we will be able to progress substantive change. To that end we are continuing discussions with our confidence and supply partners consistent with the direction of reform I outlined in my speech at the beginning of the year.
It is not my intention to recite those 10 priorities for National, but I do want to reemphasise the direction of travel.
The first key change is improving the plan-making process. The current Schedule 1 process is cumbersome, costly and is not serving New Zealand’s environment or economy well. It takes an average of seven years to produce a plan change, when a sector like housing can go from boom to bust in just three years.
We keep having to pass special legislation to get around these problems. We had to do it to get some limits on water takes in Canterbury, to get a new unitary plan for the consolidated Auckland councils, to get a plan for Christchurch’s rebuild and through the Special Housing Areas to get some progress on Auckland’s housing shortage.
I am a strong enthusiast for the collaborative process recommended by the Land and Water Forum for water plans, but am also keen to enable use of this sort of approach to a wider range of resource management issues.
The second key directional change is stronger national direction and standardisation. Very few National Policy Statements or National Environmental Standards have been advanced over the 25-year history of the Act. We’ve done more in the last five years, than in the last 20, and have more in the pipeline.
We are currently consulting on a new National Environmental Standards for Telecommunication Facilities. It has been attacked by the Greens as undermining the environment and community consultation, but we are not going to progress a world-class communication network with each of our 67 councils having different rules on what sort of wi-fi panel, street cabinet, antennae or microwave communications tower is allowed.
We will also finalise a National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry this year.
Our phase two reforms will strengthen national standards and policy statements, and require councils to use standard planning templates so they get to decide where different rules apply, but the rules are standardised nationally.
Another key element of our reforms is how we balance between the rights of a person to reasonably use their property, and the wider community and environmental interests.
I have no difficulties with rules that limit intensification of land use where it results in pollution of public waterways or saying to a landowner you can’t remove a hundreds-year-old kauri tree. But how far should it go? I have constituents being denied consents for a home because the living areas face the sun rather than the street on the basis that there is a public good in them keeping an eye on the safety of the neighbourhood. I have another where the fence is deemed unacceptable because the gap between the pallings is too small. We do need to put some limits on how much we micro-regulate people’s lives.
We are a party that believes it is Government’s role to protect the environment but we also believe this should be limited and done in such a way that we don’t unduly interfere in people’s lives. We need new provisions that waive the need for resource consents where the environmental effects are negligible.
The issue of how we improve the way we deal with natural hazards, urban planning, housing affordability and infrastructure are key subjects in our discussions with our support parties.
The most straightforward should be increasing the status of significant natural hazards.
We will be doing a disservice to the people of Christchurch if we do not heed the lessons of the RMA policy failures of allowing new subdivisions in areas like Bexley, where the liquefaction risk was known and identified but ignored.
Kiwis value their environment, but they are practical people who recognise that we live in one of the most geologically active countries in the world with risks from earthquakes, floods, volcanic activity and landslides, and that our systems need to better manage these risks.
The most difficult issue to resolve is how we address the challenging problems around growth of our urban communities and housing affordability
The Special Housing Areas mechanism is working successfully by bypassing the normal RMA process. This law expires in September 2016 and we need to find a way in this package of reforms to maintain this momentum. Auckland’s housing supply issues go back over a decade, and will take many more years to resolve.
The underlying issue is that the RMA is not well-designed for dealing with urban issues. Most countries have a separate planning Act to resolve these. When we passed the RMA in 1991, we assumed other countries would follow suit and put their planning and environmental laws into one. It hasn’t happened, for the reason that it is not a comfortable fit. Dr Phil McDermott, a former Professor of Resource and Environmental Planning at Massey University, has recently written a paper on the case for new thinking in this area, suggesting separate resource and urban planning law. It is not an issue we should consider in this second phase of our RMA reforms, but is something Bluegreens need to think about in the longer term.
I want to conclude with comments on water reform.
Last week we reinvigorated the Land and Water Forum to advance the next stage of work in improving how we manage freshwater.
The most important goal will be in supporting the implementation of the National Policy Statement at regional and catchment level.
We have two further policy commitments on freshwater to deliver on this term.
The first is in developing a $100 million fund to support the retirement of buffer zones around sensitive lakes and rivers.
The second is on delivering a requirement for all dairy cattle to be excluded from waterways by 1 July 2017. The devil is always in the detail of such policies. We want to work with the Forum in ensuring this is done in a way that is both practical and effective. . .
Practical and effective – that is a good foundation for good policy.