Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Environmental Reporting Bill: Our fears are realised

Back in March, Statistics New Zealand announced their Ministerially-approved national environmental reporting topics for their 2015 Synthesis Report - basicly, a prototype for reporting under the yet-to-be-passed Environmental Reporting Bill. They were dismal, a political hatchet-job which ignored key drivers and impacts while obfuscating the causes of our environmental problems. And it wasn't just climate change: the other domains, air, land, freshwater and the marine environment all received similar treatment.

Statistics New Zealand made a lot of noise about the robust and independent method they used to develop the topics. So how did this happen? Because Ministers micromanaged the whole process and systematicly watered down the robust topic list developed by the Technical Advisory Groups. The dismal tale is told in a series of release from the Minister for the Environment, Ministry for the Environment (part 1, part 2), Statistics New Zealand, and (most illuminatingly) the Minister of Statistics. Some highlights:

  • From the beginning, Ministers pushed for highly detailed and prescriptive topics - "global greenhouse gas emissions" rather than "climate change", "economic production by primary industries" rather than "economic impacts of climate change". This caused consternation in Statistics New Zealand, with an email from MfE noting that "Stats are very keen to avoid any ultimatums being put to Ministers but clearly feel their independence is being compromised by the specificity of the topics areas". Eventually the Government Statistician issued a (heavily redacted) briefing note which appears to have basically read Ministers the Riot Act. Amy Adams did not agree, and there are a large number of highly specific topics in the final list. By saying "you will report on this in this way", they have prevented Statistics New Zealand from using more illuminating statistics.

  • Ministers also repeatedly watered down reporting on impacts on Maori, successively rejecting topics on wahi tapu and customary use in favour of a vague "cultural significance of the [X] environment to Maori" - which was then left out of the final report. This is pitched as due to Amy Adams seeing it as "a ‘nice-to-have’ and not ‘must include’", but earlier comments make her real reason clear: she wanted to avoid "unintentionally committing the Government to report on Treaty of Waitangi issues as part of the Environmental Reporting Bill". Unstated: because doing so might give rise to Treaty claims.

  • As an example of the suspicion Ministers regard the reporting with, they wanted to micromanage final peer review: "Ministers would like to be consulted on who peer reviews the synthesis report to ensure 'extreme ideas' don't find there way into the report."

  • The final topic list was signed off on September 1, 2014 - after which there was an election, a cabinet reshuffle, and a new Minister for the Environment. Who immediately wanted to interfere:
    Minister Smith expressed concern with some topics for the 2015 Environmental Synthesis Report, and requested time to consider them. He is concerned that officials may go wide of the mark and infer value judgements because of the measures selected. He is happy with draft ERB legislation with respect to Ministers setting topics, but wants to consider it further.

    Overall, Minister Smith was more comfortable with state topics than pressure or impact topics. He expressed doubt that officials could measure some of the latter topics rigorously; for example, Maori measures. He did note he wants to use international best practice, however.

    Unfortunately, information on exactly what effect Nick Smith had on the synthesis report was not part of the release. But given how it appears to have been watered down even further in exactly the way he suggested, he may have had some influence.
Supposedly, if the Environmental Reporting Bill is eventually passed, there will be a round of public consultation before the final topics are set by regulation. But looking at the process so far, I don't think we can have any confidence in that process. The big risk with the bill as it stands is that the Minister can choose the topics to suit themselves, steering reporting away from areas of key environmental concern. And judging by the behaviour of the Ministers involved, that concern is fully justified. As long as Ministers can set the topics, their environmental report is a joke with no credibility.