Environment Minister David Parker at the launch of the "Action for Healthy Waterways" last September - in the background, Agriculture Minister, Damien O'Connor and former Labour Minister, Dover Samuels.

The battle of the waterways took another turn yesterday with the release of a major report on their state.

The report produced by the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics NZ found that our waterways were “suffering as a result of human activities, including the effects of climate change”, as Environment Minister David Parker put it.

Parker has staked his political career on cleaning up the waterways and earned widespread criticism from farmers as a consequence.

Last year he launched a plan to draft a new National Freshwater Policy Standard which would over-rule the Resource Management Act and impose new tougher standards on waterway pollution.

The standard would particularly focus on the impact of farming, particularly intensive dairy farming, on waterways by limiting the amount of nitrogen farmers could allow to run off into streams and rivers.

In February DairyNZ published economic modelling which showed that Parker’s standards could lead to an annual fall in GDP of $6 billion by 2050 (though those figures are contested by other studies.)

POLITIK has been provided with a release under the Official Information Act of 160 pages of reports, meeting minutes, emails and minutes from last year detailing the behind the scenes battle to develop the nitrogen limit and how farmer groups were effectively frozen out of the process.

Simply the Ministry for the Environment found itself caught in the middle between local government and farmers on one side and environmentalists and probably its Minister  on the other. It ended up suspecting Federated Framers of leaking some confidential information and responded to that by effectively ending contact with them.

Parker established four advisory groups; the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group (STAG), Kahui Wai Maori, the Regional Sector Water subgroup and the Freshwater Leaders’ Group.

But it appears that no economic analysis of the proposals was ever prepared.

The Leaders’ Group was the lead group and its first draft report prepared in April last year  said: “We have yet to see a quantitative assessment of potential impacts of the package both in terms of the expected effect on freshwater quality and ecosystem health and human health, and what possible land use, social, investment and production changes, and distributional effects there might be.”

The paper goes on: “We have asked the Ministry for the Environment for the first, but it has been unable to provide that assessment so far. “

The Freshwater Leaders’ Group said restrictions on the discharge of nitrogen  “will have immediate consequences for land users in several catchments.

“It will be important to both have a clear communications strategy for addressing land users’ concerns, and a way of helping land users to understand their options for changing their practices.”

There is, however, no such assessment anywhere in the 160 pages seen by POLITIK and sources differ as to whether any assessment has now been completed. (Changed to reflect competing claims by various players in the matter.) 

The advisory group most closely connected to farmers, the Regional Sector subgroup was always concerned about the impact of the proposals on their districts.

In May 2019, the group’s chair, Doug Leeder, wrote to Parker saying the group was concerned that the weight of evidence to support the proposals was not robust.

“We cannot support the proposals as they stand,” he said.

And the group maintained that position through to its final report later in May.

Vaughan Payne, the CEO of the Waikato Regional Council, signed the report saying “ in our view, the proposals cannot all be implemented in the timeframes suggested, and due to capacity constraints in the system outside of regional council control, some of the proposals are unlikely to achieve the outcomes sought. “

And Payne said the local government representatives did not support the nitrogen limits being proposed and were very concerned about their implications.

Those implications centre around land-use change.

“Land use change”, which simply means reducing the number of dairy cows per hectare, is  (understandably) highly controversial among farmers. It is the reason DairyNZ says that the changes will impact GDP.

But the Freshwater Leaders’ Group argued that it would be inevitable in some parts of the country if the new limits were to be introduced.

“Achieving the objectives of Essential Freshwater will require changes in agricultural practice over time, particularly but not exclusively in over-allocated catchments,” the report said.

“The level of change required will be determined by the limits set for catchments, and the degree of over-allocation.

“In some catchments moving farmers from “worst practice” to “best practice” will be sufficient.

“However, in severely over-allocated catchments land-use change is likely to be required.”

Given such a sensitive proposal, it might have been expected that farmers, dairy farmers in particular, would be intimately involved in developing the proposals.

But after Federated Farmers were accused of leaking confidential material they had been given at a briefing, they were frozen out of any further involvement.

In May last year, the Ministry for the Environment’s Director, Water, Martin Workman circulated the key parts of the draft final freshwater package.

It went to a number of agricultural organisations who were told it was confidential and not to be shared.

Unfortunately, not all the participants in the advisory groups and other stakeholders had seen what the agriculture groups were being given.

And also, unfortunately,  it was leaked within 24 hours of it arriving in the email inboxes.

That meant a senior MfE official, Cheryl Barnes, had to convene an urgent meeting of all the advisory group members to be briefed.

The consequence of this was spelled out by Workman a week later when a Federated Farmers official, Ewan Kelsall, invited Workman to a Federated Farmers board meeting to discuss the water proposals in which farmers had a vital interest.

Workman refused the invitation.

In a curt email to Kelsall, he said: “MfE will no longer be able to attend the Board meeting. The recent sharing of confidential information provided to primary sector groups means we are not able to share further information on Essential Freshwater.”

The tension between the Ministry and farmers continued at the New Zealand Field-days at Rukuhia a week later.

The senior Ministry official, Barnes, and two staff intended to go to the field days. In an email to a number of advisory group members, Barnes said: “I wanted to advise you that I plan to attend Fieldays in Hamilton this week and check that you are comfortable with that.

In Vicky’s (Vicky Robertson, CEO of the Ministry) absence I am attending as acting CE and will be there to listen to grassroots farmers on the full range of environmental issues and to talk to a wide range of stakeholders such as CRI’s (Crown Research Institutes) tech developers etc.”

But if the farmers at the Fielddays thought she was going to talk to them about what by that stage was the dominant environmental issue in farmer politics, they would have been mistaken.

“I made a clear commitment to you this week that MfE will not discuss the Essential Freshwater package outside of the Advisory Groups until it is made public, which I take very seriously,” she said.

“Should water issues be raised with me while I am in Hamilton, I propose to give a clear message that I am unable to discuss at this point. I will not be raising it myself.”

She said the only other Ministry attendance at the Fieldays would be two policy analysts. They would be on the Ministry for Primary Industries stand.

“They will be briefed on what not to say too,” she said.

Finally, another week later,  Gavin Forrest, a Federated Farmers official, wrote a fulsome letter of apology over the whole matter to the former Labour MP, John Blincoe, who is an environmental advisor in Parker’s office. (changed to correct his role)

But Forrest did not accept any blame.

“All Federated Farmers staff who cited the documents have been spoken to and have given their absolute assurance that they did not share the information outside a core group of Federated Farmers policy team,” Forrest’s letter said.

“The documents were, following MfE’s approval, forwarded to a Deer Industry NZ policy person who attended the meeting held the next day.

“The documents were not provided to our elected water spokesman and definitely not to any farmers.”

In many ways that summed up the deep suspicion that had developed between the farmers and the Minister, the Ministry and the advisory bodies over the proposals.

But even the advisory bodies were divided.

POLITIK

Agriculture Minister, Damien O’Conor writes:

I’d like to take issue with the premise in your story that “farmer groups were effectively frozen out of the process.” This could not be further from the truth.

The Essential Freshwater proposals build on the work started by primary sector industry organisations and regional councils. Farmers and farming groups’ views have been considered at every stage of the development of these policies. The Water Taskforce’s advisory groups involved throughout the process, such as the Freshwater Leaders Group and Kāhui Wai Maori

, brought together deep knowledge, expertise and input from leaders

across the primary sector, agribusiness and veterinary services.

During the early stages of policy development, primary sector organisations such as Dairy NZ and Beef and Lamb were involved in technical discussions on aspects of the policy and farmers were invited to speak directly with officials.

During consultation, officials took the conversation to more than 20 locations around the country. Special primary sector meetings were held in many regions, including a dedicated session on horticulture. The sector organisations showed leadership in encouraging and supporting their members to contribute submissions, of which 17,500 were received.

In the post-consultation phase the Independent Advisory Panel, which reviewed submissions, included representatives from the primary sector.

Officials have also met with individual farmers and groups of farmers to hear their opinions first-hand and understand any specific feedback they have on the freshwater proposals.

Farmers and growers have shown leadership for years in positive environmental outcomes on farmland and most we have heard from are supportive of bringing all land users up to the high standards already set my many.

Five members of the STAG group  — dubbed in some documents ‘the cautious five” — objected to the proposed nitrogen levels saying the science behind the levels was unresolved.

However, the STAG group had right from its inception adopted a scientific process often used on environmental matters, called the “precautionary principle” which advises decision-makers to err on the side of the environment when the science is unresolved.

Thus of the groups that reported back; Te Kahui Wai Maori did not offer any comment on the nitrogen limits. They focused on Maori title and rights to water.

The Regional Sector Group were opposed to the limits.

The STAG group were divided but by a majority supported the high limits.

Based on that the Freshwater Leaders’ group also supported the high limits.

That was clearly what Parker wanted.

The minutes of a Hui held for representatives of the advisory groups in June last year and also attended by Blincoe from Parker’s office said that there was a danger he was being set up to fail because some of the original stronger proposals, particularly relating to agriculture had been weakened.

“Public opinion ins on our side,” the minutes said.

It was that understanding along with the belief that the Minister wanted a tough freshwater standard that appears to have driven the final Standard, albeit over the objections of the farmers and local government.

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