Monday, February 22, 2010

No justification for overthrowing democracy in Canterbury

On Friday, a government-appointed review team recommended that Environment Canterbury be replaced with a commission for three years in what would effectively be a farmer coup against Canterbury ratepayers. So what was their justification for this radical and undemocratic move?

Reading through the full report [PDF], its hard to find one. Environment Canterbury has unarguably failed to manage Canterbury's water resources effectively, in that it does not have proper planning documents and the consents process for large water projects is poorly managed (one might also view overallocation and the rivers filling with shit as a failure, but the review doesn't seem to - instead, they seem to think the failure is a failure of ECan to give dairy farmers as much water as they want). The review team thinks Canterbury's water allocation is an issue of national importance - so important it should be hived off under an unelected special-purpose board which could manage it "effectively" without being subject to democratic constraints. But even if you grant them that, that doesn't seem to be any reason to replace the rest of ECan with a Commission and deny Cantabrians the right to elect their own local government for three years.

Reading further, and the decision makes even less sense. The review team does not regard ECan as fundamentally dysfunctional, saying

with the exception of water, the council functions as an effective body (in some areas the Review Group considers ECan to be well ahead of most other local authorities)
And yet replacing the council with a commission is regarded as an advantage of the preferred option (and the destruction of local democracy is not regarded as any sort of disadvantage). Further on, it seems that ECan actually has a full water plan in the pipeline, the Natural Resources Regional Plan - but this won't be ready until August this year, which is "too long" to wait. But as the review notes, creating a special-purpose water board and replacing the council will require legislation - which means six months to a year for the full legislative process. In other words, the earliest a water board could be appointed and begin work is around the same time as ECan has completed it. And even if the government used urgency to ram such legislation through in a week, and staffed it with former National MPs appointed without interview in the manner of Brian Neeson, its difficult to see how such a body could formulate, consult on, and finalise a water management policy any quicker than ECan is scheduled to. In other words, the supposed "benefit" of overturning democracy - quick action - just isn't there.

So what's the real reason then? The review team gives it away when they accuse ECan of focusing too much on protecting the environment and having an "imbalance" between environmental, economic, social and cultural perspectives. But as they admit, there is no legislative requirement for such "balance" on regional councils, and ECan's environmental focus is largely driven by its voters. In the 2007 elections, 4 councillors were elected on a platform of opposing the dairy-driven Central Plains Water scheme, and other councillors (particularly in Christchurch) recognise that they need to protect Canterbury's waterways or face de-election. The review team clearly sees this sort of voter pressure for tougher environmental regulation as illegitimate, and something decisionmakers need to be insulated against so they will make the "right" (for farmers) decisions. I regard it as democracy in action. One of the core ideas of the RMA is that (within the bounds of national standards) communities get to set their own level of development and find their own balance between the environment and the economy. The people of Canterbury should be left to do just that.