Thursday, February 20, 2014

National's environmental secrecy bill

Since time immemorial, National has been promising regular environmental reporting. Nick Smith ran on the platform in 2008, then failed to deliver so badly that Labour re-introduced his member's bill on the subject in the hope of forcing him to keep his word. But now, after six years in government, National is finally keeping that promise, introducing an Environmental Reporting Bill. The core of the bill is good, requiring a "synthesis report" every three years on the whole of the environment, and regular "domain reports" on land, air, atmosphere and climate, freshwater and the marine environment. In each case, the reports will have to describe environmental pressures and impacts, as well as the state of the environment.

But there's one unusual feature. Section 16 of the bill forbids disclosure (for example, under the OIA), of any "information or analysis that will be, or has been, used in an environmental report" except with the permission of both the Secretary for the Environment and the Government Statistician. Permission must be refused if "the information or analysis is integral to significant findings or conclusions of the report". The clause "applies despite any other enactment", specifically over-riding the Official Information Act.

MfE's disclosure statement says that this is "consistent with current practice for Tier 1 statistics (e.g. gross domestic product statistics)" and exists to ensure that the report will be independent from the government of the day. But think about it for a minute: the vast majority of the information used in these reports will be sourced from basic environmental monitoring conducted by Crown Research Institutes (such as NIWA), or from local or regional authorities. At the moment such information is routinely available; if I want to know how dirty my local river is, I can LGOIMA Horizons and ask. If this clause is enacted, such requests will be subject to a central government veto. Even assuming no political malice (something I am not willing to grant), at the minimum this will make such information much harder to get, and result in routine delays for consultation. But there's a real danger here that basic environmental information will become secret, except as presente din glossy central government reports.

Interestingly, the power is specifically noted as applying to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who has a statutory monitoring power under the bill. How they're supposed to do this independently with the Secretary for the Environment (a political appointee who must maintain good relations with their Minister) having a veto on their information is unclear.

What's really going on? Finding out will take some excavation under the OIA, but there's two obvious targets: environmentalists (who keep using environmental statistics and draft copies to challenge the government's rose-tinted views), and climate cranks (who have flooded climate scientists with OIAs for basic data, then launched meritless lawsuits over it, wasting everybody's time and money). But neither justifies secrecy. Lurking behind it is a toxic view that "independence" requires being insulated from any challenge. But as any scientist will tell you, a report whose conclusions cannot be tested against the data is not worth the bits it is written in.

If we want robust, independent environmental reporting, then it needs to be subject to criticism, including of its basic data and of its process. National's environmental secrecy clause must go!