Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Censoring the environment

I've avoided weighing in on the government's censoring of the final chapter of its landmark State of the Environment report so far because I've been waiting to read the actual document. Today, the Ministry for the Environment finally put it online, and I've spent a while chewing it over. My immediate reaction is that Trevor Mallard is lying when he claims that the material was cut because it was not supported by the facts. The final section accurately reflects the content of previous chapters, so when it says that intensified land use is "arguably the largest pressure today on New Zealand’s land, freshwaters and coastal oceans, and atmosphere", it's because the chapters on land, freshwater and oceans all point to overstocking and nutrient runoff as significant environmental problems. Likewise, when it says that increased transport use is causing environmental problems, its because the air and atmosphere chapters support it with their information on particulate and greenhouse gas emissions. As for policy recommendations, they're so vague as to be nugatory, and amount more to a summary of current policy trends than specific recommendations - hardly a reason for them to be pulled.

So what happened? I can believe the Ministry for the Environment when they say that they did not show the draft to any Minister. However, they also say that

peer review of the draft conclusions chapter by central government agencies and regional councils made clear that it qualitative content was not in line with the factual nature of the report

Which suggests that it wasn't a Minister, but other bureaucrats who got cold feet about speaking the truth about our dirty dairy industry. I currently have an OIA request in in an effort to discover who those central and local government agencies were and what they said about the draft. If I get a response, it should make interesting reading...

(As for qualitative content not being appropriate to a factual report, MfE were quite happy to draw qualitative conclusions in their 1997 report. So what's changed?)

Either way, this experience suggests that the Greens and National are right: we cannot trust a government Ministry concerned primarily with "not rocking the boat" to give us environmental reporting which accurately identifies our key problems and fearlessly challenges those responsible to clean their act up. If we want that, then we need to give the job to someone independent, such as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.