Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The PCE on environmental reporting

Last year, National passed the Environmental Reporting Act. The purpose of the Act is ostensibly to produce regular, independent reporting on the state of New Zealand's environment. But that could result in bad news (such as reports that our greenhouse gas emissions are rising, our rivers are unswimmable, and our native species being driven to extinction), so National strapped the chicken, dictating the topics the reports would cover.

Today, that chicken came home to roost, with the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment panning the prototype Environment Aotearoa 2015 report.

The criticisms are serious. The report is poorly structured, which obfuscates key issues. The indicators are poorly chosen. There is no forecasting of future trends. But above all, there are no conclusions, and no assessment of the seriousness of problems.

That, of course, was the point: National wanted people to think it cared about the environment, so it had to produce reporting - but forecasts, assessment of seriousness, and conclusions are the last things it wanted. Because then it would have the Department of Statistics telling it (and the people of New Zealand) that climate change, dairy intensification and over-fishing are real and serious problems, and they might be expected to do something about them. But if an environmental report isn't going to do those things, you really have to ask what the point of it is.

But the PCE's final recommendation is the best: she recommends that the Ministry for the Environment be required to produce a formal, public response to each environmental report, outlining priorities and options for action. This respects the difference between (scientific) reporting and (political) action, while making it clear that reporting must drive action. Which again is the very opposite of what National wanted. But if reporting doesn't result in action, then why bother with it?

National will try and dismiss this response. That could come back to bite them. Because if the PCE doesn't get what she wants, as an independent Officer of Parliament she can simply start producing her own reports, or her own assessment of responses. And that will be even worse for National.