Friday, February 19, 2010

A farmer coup at Environment Canterbury

Last year, by legislation rammed through under urgency, the government established a dictatorship in Auckland. The decision-making powers of the elected councils and mayors were made subject to an unelected body appointed by the Minister in Wellington. The will of Aucklanders was ignored.

Now they want to go even further in Canterbury. Under the guise of fixing the dysfunctional regional council, they want it simply replaced by a special commission appointed by the Minister, with elections to follow in 2013. In other words, for an entire local government term, the people of Canterbury will be denied any say in about who sits on their regional council. Worse, when democracy is restored, the council's most important responsibility - water - will be taken away from them, given instead to a special-purpose commission. Its members will be - you guessed it - appointed by the Minister, accountable to Wellington, not Canterbury. So we have Fiji on the Rakaia. Lovely.

The government's excuse for this abrogation of democracy is that Environment Canterbury is not meeting statutory timeframes for handling resource consents, and that it has not solved the problem of water overallocation and pollution in Canterbury (where greedy farmers are sucking the rivers dry to make milk, and filling them with shit). But the solution to these problems is assistance and (if necessary) funding, not the abrogation of democracy. A fundamental principle of resource management law in this country is that local policies and plans are made by elected bodies accountable to local people. They must be consistent with central government plans, but beyond that, it is up to the elected councillors. And that is as it should be. The balance between environmental and development is a matter for each local community - not central government.

At this stage its worth highlighting that one of the reasons for Environment Canterbury's dysfunction is a split and increasing polarisation between pro-environment and pro-development councillors. These represent different constituencies (the former are mostly urban, the latter are mostly rural). National sides with the latter, and their solution effectively strips the vote from the former to unilaterally impose a solution in favour of the latter. In other words, what they are proposing is a farmer coup to control and pollute Canterbury's water resources, and impose unwanted water storage projects without democratic oversight or accountability. This cannot be allowed.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little the people of Christchurch can do about it - except to make it clear that if they are robbed of a vote for ECan this year, they will use their vote in 2011 to punish those responsible.