Apr 27, 2010

Valedictory of Eugenie Sage

Normally only councillors who have decided to retire ...........

...and not contest the October election deliver leave taking speeches in this chamber. Councillors removed by voters don’t get the opportunity.

For me the cover story headline in last week’s Mercantile Gazette, “Democracy drowns in irrigation race” sums up why we are here today. As the article notes and I quote “Canterbury’s gold rush for irrigation water has become a political tsunami sweeping away local democracy.”

The Waimakariri, Rakaia, and Selwyn Rivers define the northern and southern boundaries of the Selwyn/Banks Peninsula constituency which I have had the privilege of representing for too short a time. I bow my head to that place and its people and to the region’s rivers, lakes, aquifers and wetlands.

One of the things I have enjoyed most is constituency work for the varied insights it provides into what council policy and resource consent decision making means for individuals, and how administrative systems can be improved. Thank you to all the constituents who have contacted me for help in navigating bureaucratic systems and processes. Championing constituents’ concerns is of course not a function commissioners can perform – they have no mandate.

By its title, Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners) and Improved Water Management Act promises much. But “improved” water management for whom - for torrent fish and black fronted terns, kayakers and fishers or Fonterra and agribusiness corporates ?

Our rivers are the one of the few places on the Plains where wild nature can flourish. Ecologically Canterbury’s braided rivers are internationally distinctive as breeding habitat for threatened species such as wrybill and black fronted terns, as wild landscapes and as a place of rejuvenation and restoration of spirits, a counterpoint to stresses of urban life. If the legislation facilitated a greater respect for them and the breadth of life they sustain, it may have merit.

But when MAF papers from September 2009, which Forest and Bird obtained under the Official Information Act, set out “Government’s options for accelerating progress” with the Hurunui Water Project and Trustpower’s proposition to irrigate over 100,000 ha of new land. using the Lake Coleridge power scheme – I’m doubtful.

Nor is there any certainty, even from the Ministry for the Environment, that the legislation will deliver on its claims. The Regulatory Impact Statement which the Ministry prepared notes, and I quote: “The short timeframe available for formulating and drafting the legislation necessary to enable the government’s proposed intervention has not allowed for a comprehensive assessment of risks and alternatives. This increases the risks that intervention could be incorrectly targeted and or could require subsequent amendment to address unforeseen circumstances.”

On Monday, Newsroom reported ACT leader and Local Government Minister Rodney Hide explaining why ACT MPs will vote against legislation to implement co-management of the Waikato River by Tainui and four other river iwi. Mr Hide is reported as saying and I quote, “We believe that when you are essentially regulating and controlling natural resources such as water and land, the people responsible should be subject to democratic control. That means that if the community does not like it, the community can sack them. The trouble with co-governance is that half of the decision makers aren’t elected representatives.”

The Minister has yet to explain the difference between the Waikato and the Waimakariri and why 550,000 Cantabrians should be denied a right which he so vigorously defends for Waikato residents.

The Act summarily removes the Hurunui water conservation order proceedings from the jurisdiction of the Environment Court despite the court having set a hearing date. The constitutional propriety of this is questionable. One other particularly repugnant aspect of the legislation is the generous regulation making powers in section 31. I read these as enabling the Minister - through Executive regulation (rather than legislation scrutinised by Parliament) - to give the Commissioners additional powers and also suspend the application of parts of the Resource Management Act.

Such broad regulation making powers by a Minister contradicts basic constitutional principles. With substantive appeals on the Regional Policy Statement and NRRP gone are submission rights to be suspended too ?

The Canterbury Regional Council has been subjected to a sustained campaign to destabilise its role as an environmental regulator. Ministers continue to recycle outdated information from 2007/08 about consent processing times and fail to acknowledge that 80% of applications now meet statutory timeframes.

They fail to acknowledge the national leadership with the regional council provides in public passenger transport. Seventeen years ago buses on the No. 18 Bowenvale/ Beckenham route were creaking second hand, Japanese imports which belched diesel, with seating so cramped that passengers had their knees round their chin and patronage was nosediving.

The regional council’s management made Christchurch the first city in Australasia to achieve integrated planning, integrated ticketing and real time information. So now it takes 50 minutes to travel from Diamond Harbour to the Convention Centre by ferry and a connecting commuter express bus where all seats are taken.

Council has led on air quality where wintertime breaches of the national environmental standards for small particulate in Christchurch are now a quarter of what they were in the 1990s.

For a supposedly dysfunctional council there have been some significant achievements in this 30 month term including:

  • continuing growth in public passenger transport trips with a record 17.5 million public passenger trips across the region in the year ending June 2009. That’s a 4% increase in passenger numbers in Christchurch and a 13 % growth in Timaru.
  • setting urban limits for Christchurch city and townships such as Rolleston and Lincoln by getting Regional Policy Statement Plan Change 1 to appeal stage.
  • progressing the review of the Regional Policy Statement which councillors have had extensive involvement with.
  • having a strong regulatory backstop to the clean up of Christchurch winter time air with air quality chapter of NRRP becoming operative earlier this month.
  • a revised environmental flow regime for the Waimakariri River which better provides for the river’s health if further abstraction is to occur.
  • reviews of consent conditions of 600 consents in Rakaia –Selwyn Red Zone.
  • major effort to contain Chilean needle grass to the one site near Cheviot where it has been found.
  • a significant increase in the extent of wilding conifer control.

I especially thank pest and biosecurity staff for their enthusiasm and dedication. In the control of nassella tussock, a major invasive weed, the results of landholder surveys show strong support for the council’s regulatory work. I think the community appreciates the Council’s role as an environmental regulator it is just not often expressed.

The Canterbury Regional Council is an organisation I am proud to have been part of. I compliment the Chief Executive and staff for their professionalism, expertise and commitment to the integrated management of Canterbury’s natural and physical resources. I hope that those who are seeking to shred this organisation’s reputation to make it a more timid environmental regulator, do not succeed in demoralising staff, undermining the role of science in decision making, and blunting commitment to sustainable management.

I thank colleagues for the diversity of views they have brought to the table. Cr McKay for sharing his knowledge of the latest improvements in irrigation efficiency, Cr Murray for her incisive questions and love of the land, and Cr Little for his tenacity in debate. Cr Oldfield I always knew where you stood.

I recognise Cr Evans for always championing good process, Cr Harrow for being ever cheerful, Cr Tindall for your capacity to do the unexpected and Crs Demeter and Sutherland for being such supportive colleagues.

I thank Cr Kane for her dramatic energy and regular reminders that we can take ourselves too seriously. I acknowledge Cr Sir Kerry Burke for his progressive approach to sustainable development and for his fairness in encouraging wide ranging debate while chair. And my benchmate Cr Bob Kirk for his breadth of knowledge, wisdom and aphorisms –don’t wrestle with pigs unless you are prepared to get dirty, and keep an eye on the donut not the hole in the middle.

Thank you Cr Neill for encouraging new councillors to step up to their responsibilities especially in the early days of this foreshortened term. That has been appreciated.

As Cr Kane highlighted with her “It’s all about me” bumper sticker last week, politicians can become rather too self-absorbed and rather trying to live with at times. I thank my partner Richard Suggate for all of his patience, practical wisdom and support, and family and friends similarly.

In concluding, I particularly thank everyone who has affirmed the importance of regional democracy by coming today, everyone who is engaging with its loss in conversations with friends and neighbours, and asserting that Canterbury’s 550,000 residents have a right to have a voice in the management of our water, coast, air, lands, and public transport and to call those who meet in this room to account for their decisions every three years.

As American journalist Bill Moyers has said: “Although our interests as citizens vary, each one is an artery to the heart that pumps life through the body politic, and each is important to the health of democracy……. Democracy works when people claim it as their own.” The Nation 22 January 2007.

We need to reclaim our water and our right to vote. Kia kaha.

Picture courtesy of It's Our City, Inc