The sacking of the Environment Canterbury board was an orchestrated coup conducted by the government on behalf of corporate irrigators.
From their overseas offices big agribusiness investors are piling on the pressure for more opportunities and better returns for their over-paid managers and impatient shareholders.
They are happy for their profits to be extracted at the expense of family farming, the Canterbury environment and democracy itself. The social and environmental damage is irrelevant to people who have never sighted the Canterbury plains and who wouldn’t know a braided river from an irrigation canal.
The government report prepared by former National cabinet minister Wyatt Creech said the board was dysfunctional and riven with political squabbling but even if this report were 100% correct, and this is hotly disputed even by critics of ECan, abolishing the board and replacing it with commissioners was an outrageous abuse of democracy.
If things were as bad as Environment Minister Nick Smith says then the government should have told the people of Canterbury and appealed to them to use their votes to fix it at the local body elections. The subsequent public debate would have clarified the issues, candidates would have declared their positions and Canterbury voters left to make their decision through the ballot box. The newly elected board would have been tasked with finding a way through the various competing interests for Canterbury’s water.
But the government wasn’t interested in voters getting in the way of the irrigators.
Papers released under the Official Information Act last week showed instead that it was working hard to find ways to overcome obstacles to the irrigators plans. Democracy was one of them.
So it abolished the board and installed Margaret Bazely with a group of development-friendly commissioners to help. No environmentalists need have applied. And just to make sure the irrigators get what they want, under section 31 of the new act, Nick Smith can suspend the Resource Management Act (RMA) for water moratoria and water conservation orders (river protection measures). In this way the government will be able to further restrict the rights of objectors to legally challenging ECan decisions which threaten the environment.
The government wants to change the face of the Canterbury environment forever. Margaret Bazely’s job is to put in place a water plan for Canterbury which favours development over the environment and which will be impossible to legally wind back by Cantabrians by the time they get the chance to elect the board again in 2013.
Aucklanders are facing a similar process with the development of the supercity where the government proposes to establish Council Controlled Organisations to run most council services at arm’s length from elected councillors. The undemocratic structure is developed before voters have a say.
Just to make absolutely sure we are in no doubt as to the government’s intentions Finance Minister Bill English said last week the government itself would provide the money for investment in damming Canterbury rivers for irrigation if the private sector couldn’t by itself guarantee enough profit for investors.
The government was strongly advised not to take the dramatic action it did. Ministry of Justice Officials said the Creech-led review of the council did not justify bringing in commissioners and restricting any appeals on a regional plan and water conservation orders to points of law in the High Court.
Looked at more widely, whenever a government wants to make significant policy change it often does so by creating a crisis. National did this with claims about ACC before announcing big increases in levies as a way to make it more lucrative for private sector involvement.
In the ECan case the “crisis” was created by commissioning a report on the workings of the board. Who better to do so than former National government minister and dairy industry heavyweight Wyatt Creech? It was like asking a weasel to check on kiwi eggs.
Creech quickly prepared a report which gave the government ammunition to declare a crisis and abolish the board.
And it won’t be just the voters who can expect to be shafted through this decision. Don’t be surprised to hear moves to contract out ECan work to the private sector. Neo-liberals claim contracting out is more efficient but any so-called efficiencies are gained by reducing pay and conditions of employment.
A more insidious impact of the decision will be its chilling effect on democracy elsewhere in the country. Other elected boards will know they could suffer the same fate if they stand in the way of development.
In the meantime it’s reassuring to see Canterbury residents angry about the decision. Turning opposition into effective action is the next step.