The Government’s plan to clean up waterways now depends on it being able to do a deal with Maori.
Environment Minister David Parker says he wants to bring negotiations with Maori over the rights to discharge nitrate pollutants into water to a head before he can impose regulations which would clean up the waterways.
Because Maori own much under-developed land, they want the rights to fertilise that land to develop it.
But that will require that they get rights to discharge the nitrate fertiliser runoff into streams and waterways which, in many parts of the country, are already being forced to absorb excessive amounts of nitrate.
If Maori gain rights then in those areas it will be at the expense of existing farms and farmers.
Parker met with a number of Maori groups last Friday and in what was described by one source as a positive meeting talked about some of the options going forward.
But as he warned at Monday’s post-Cabinet press conference, there is a live case before the Waitangi Tribunal which Maori could revive if they felt they were not making any progress in their talks with Parker.
So the Government is believed to be looking at various ways it might be able to sweeten any deal with Maori including providing finance from the Provincial Growth Fund for water storage projects that might assist Maori economic development.
The problem was set out by Parker last week at the Environmental Defence Society conference when he talked about work that had already been done by the Land and Water Forum on Nitrogen Discharge Limits which would effectively control how many stock units might be able to graze on a particular piece of land.
“They could not, in the end, agree, after all of those years of work, on how you allocate nutrients in nutrient-rich catchments where more people are wanting to apply nutrient than the environment can sustain, between existing capital investment and those who have got undeveloped land,” he said.
“So that now falls back to the Government to resolve those issues.
“We will, and it is likely to be by a National Environment Standard.”
(National Environmental Standards are regulations that prescribe standards for environmental matters. Each regional, city or district council must enforce the same standard.)
Controlling nitrate discharges is the primary way to prevent excessive algae growth and to allow the growth of fish and invertebrates in water bodies.
Parker has staked his political career on cleaning up waterways.
“As you know it is my priority, and I am happy to be judged by the end of my time as to whether I have made progress or not and if I haven’t you should judge me as a failure,” he told the EDS conference.
“Politicians say things like that, not about everything, because we can’t achieve progress across all things; we’ve got to prioritise somethings, but when we do prioritise things and put ourselves out there to be judged on them we do cause the Ministries and civil society to take note.
“Making those sorts of statements is a signal to the system that we are serious about fixing things.”
But it looks as though, two days later, last Friday, Parker hit a roadblock.
Parker joined Crown/Maori Relations Minister Kelvin Davis, Treaty Negotiations Minister Andrew Little and Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta at the Iwi Chairs Forum meeting at the Hopuhopu headquarters of Tainui.
Parker set out the problem with underdeveloped land.
“We recognise that under-developed land is disproportionately in Maori hands. We intend to address this issue on a catchment by catchment basis,” he said.
And so he announced a new group, Kahui Wai Māori, to “broaden the conversation with Māori on freshwater.”
But the group effectively challenges the monopoly on freshwater negotiations with the Crown which has been held by the Iwi Leaders’ Forum, regarded by some in Labour as a National Party-aligned organisation.
“We now want to include more voices, from different areas of Māoridom,” Parker said.
That drew a guarded response from the Iwi Leaders.
Pou Taiao (Environment) Chair, Herewini Parata said Parker’s proposal would work “in parallel to a specific approach to work with the Iwi Chairs Forum.”
“The Forum is considering whether this group will adequately support the Te Tiriti o Waitangi partnership,” he said.
“The continued lack of progress between the Crown and Iwi is affecting the mauri of our waterways, the stability of our country’s sustainable growth and the partnership guaranteed with the Crown under Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Iwi, hapū and whānau have been working for years on methods to solve these matters, and these solutions need to be implemented.
The Forum confirmed their preference for a regionally focused catchment-based system.
But both Parker and Parata left a question begging; would Maori agree to Parker imposing a National Environment Standard without first having obtained Maori agreement.
However, Parker on Monday night said that the Government would have to talk with Maori and develop the National Environmental Standard “in parallel.”
“We can’t wait for years to deal with these water quality issues,’ he said.
But Maori with under-developed land are going to want nutrient discharge permits if they are to develop that land.
So, how could the Government impose the standard without a deal with Maori?
“Well, you can’t,” said Parker.
“We agree those things have to be worked through contemporaneously.
“You don’t have to have everyone’s agreement but you to have work the issues through contemporaneously.”
So will the NES include the deal with the Maori?
“Well, time will tell, but the Land and Water Forum say that to resolve water issues, you also have to address Maori issues over water, and we agree with that.”
Does that mean things are slowing down?
“No, the can has been kicked down the road for a decade now.
“Everyone knows what needs to be done.
“No one has been willing to bring it to a head. We are”
But Parker can only go so fast, and any attempt to impose a deal on Maori would immediately recall the Clark Government’s disastrous seabed and foreshore proposals.
At the same time, wider agricultural interests are asking that they are included in the debate,
Irrigation NZ CEO Andrew Curtis, said yesterday that there was a need to see environmental, community and science organisations as well as councils, farmers and water users involved in the freshwater forum.
“The forum needs to be solutions orientated, informed by science and focused on the implementation of practical changes. To be successful everyone needs to be part of the discussion from day one,” he said.
The water issue is a massive political issue with huge potential repercussions for the Government.
Parker’s need for speed might need to be subdued by that fact.