By Jenée Tibshraeny
Dairy, oil and gas, forestry and fisheries have a few common denominators.
They are key exports that have historically brought a nice wad of cash to New Zealand.
They also pose significant threats to the environment - a factor that is taking some of the sheen off New Zealand’s black and white gold and preventing the oil and dairy industries from being as lucrative as they once were.
I believe the tensions between earning the big bucks and protecting the environment collide in the regions.
Why? Because this is where both the industries and the local authorities responsible for ensuring they comply with their resource consent conditions are based.
So what’s the problem? The farmers, oil and gas company employees, forestry workers and fishermen central to the prosperity of New Zealand, literally live next door to their regulators.
They’re family members, friends, in the same sports teams, and attend the same community events.
Yes, “regulators” are also people, but their personal connections to those they’re regulating are exacerbated in smaller parts of the country.
There are no “ivory towers” in regional New Zealand, enabling environmental regulators to be separated from their subjects. They are inter-linked
I admit there’s nothing new or unusual about this. Smaller communities have always been tighter knit.
But when the stakes are high - industry being propelled and the environment being protected - it’s essential we put any conflicts of interest under the microscope and ensure systems are in place so the watchdogs can be as objective as humanly possible.
It is of grave concern that the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), with the help of the NZ Law Foundation, the Ministry for the Environment and Foundation Footprint, has found there to be “politicised decision-making and a lack of audit and oversight” among the watchdogs of our environment.
In a new report, ‘Last Line of Defence: Compliance, monitoring and enforcement of New Zealand’s environmental law’, EDS senior policy analyst Marie Brown highlights a number of weaknesses in our system and calls for significant improvements across a range of agencies.
While she has found a number of the problems lie with the Department of Conservation, Brown has also commented on local councils. She says:
Councils have, overall, received little support and guidance in undertaking their CME [compliance, monitoring and enforcement] role. Councils also appear to pay varying degrees of attention to this role.
The result of this is highly variable practice that ranges from professional and generally adequate through to demonstrably inadequate or indeed virtually absent…
Regional and unitary councils have generally improved significantly over the past decade in the way they administer their CME role. Increasing capacity, professionalisation and monitoring and reporting processes are evident...
However, despite these improvements, efforts are being undermined in some instances by the sometimes politicised nature of environmental enforcement at a regional level. However, this is not uniform, suggesting that putting the right people and procedures in place can minimise such interference…
District and city councils generally dedicate fewer resources to the enforcement role and tend to deploy them less effectively. Political involvement in enforcement decision-making is more likely to be formally enabled by district councils and this must be urgently remedied.
The dual economic development and environmental protection roles of councils appears to underpin these issues.
Yes, Brown works for a lobby group, but the assertions she makes in her 120 page report are serious and can’t be ignored.
I can’t personally comment on the level of “politicised decision making” that goes on in local councils, but can understand how councils’ “duel economic development and environmental protections roles” can be problematic.
When being critical is seen as anti-development
As a journalist - a watchdog of a different sort - who has spent a couple of years living in New Plymouth, I have encountered these economic/environmental tensions when reporting on oil and gas issues.
I recall attending parties with my oil and gas engineer friends on Saturday nights, only to have people nervously laugh and retreat from the conversation when I said I was a journalist. It wasn’t until those who knew me better said things like, “Don’t worry, she’s all good”, that people relaxed.
My friends weren’t meaning to be offensive, but what they were trying to say was: “Don’t worry, Jenée isn’t carrying a bugging device and won’t go spreading nasty rumours about the industry through the big bad “media”.”
I was never going to report information I heard bandied about a party I was attending in my spare time. But naturally, if I heard something newsworthy, I might have followed it up through the correct channels (without involving mates) as I would in any circumstance.
Not only did my “watchdog” label have its problems in social settings, but the fact Taranaki’s economic wellbeing was so heavily reliant on oil and gas made me feel like I was being anti-Taranaki or anti-development if I reported too many “bad” things about the industry.
How could I report anything that may jeopardise my friends and families’ incomes? What’s more - didn’t I enjoy using the local swimming pool, or attending events like Womad and the Festival of the Lights - all heavily sponsored by local oil and gas companies? There was an undercurrent of this sort of mentality in the community.
Furthermore, while Brown says the Taranaki Regional Council has fared pretty well in her study, I recall a council staff member telling me off the cuff that queries I made around breaches of resource consent conditions in regard to the oil and gas practice of land farming wasn’t "real news”.
The pressure was subtle, yet evident as a newcomer to the very parochial region.
A response to the EDS’s report required
I don’t know whether people who work in compliance teams in local councils feel similar pressures - particularly in small towns.
And if, as Brown is suggesting, they succumb to these pressures, it is possible our regulators of financial markets and institutions, for example, may succumb to similar pressures from those they regulate.
I won’t get into this, but will vouch for how politicised decision-making from environmental regulators may be exacerbated in regional New Zealand where local economies aren’t as diversified as cities.
So, as we grapple with whether to invest in or abandon dying towns, and consider how to spread some of Auckland’s growth to other parts of the country, it's paramount we take the EDS’s comments on board.
Brown recommends (among other things) that councils’ policy/planning teams work more closely with their CME teams so that consent conditions are clear and can be effectively enforced.
She wants to see councils that don’t already have a “comprehensive cost-recovery approach for CME” get one so that ratepayers don’t have to pay for any increased resourcing.
She also suggests councils draw clear lines between governance and operations with “engagement protocols between staff and elected representatives”.
While those of you who read my work can judge how effective I am as a “watchdog”, I believe it’s important we ensure our environmental watchdogs are as transparent as can be.
The strength of our industries and protection of our environment are integral to our economy, so any tensions between the two, exacerbated in the regions, need to be addressed.