When RNZ Morning Report host Guyon Espiner interrupted a panel he was chairing at a major  environmental conference yesterday to announce that Greens Co-Leader Metiria Turei had resigned, there was applause.

The Environmental Defence Society’s “Tipping Points” conference in Auckland had attracted most of the country’s leading environmentalists and many of the country’s top public servants dealing with environmental issues along with their NGO counterparts.

Former Green MPs, Russel Norman and Kevin Hague were there (but not during Espiner’s announcement) along with a brief appearance from Kennedy Graham.

When Espiner made his announcement the party’s environment spokesperson, Eugenie Sage, was on the stage on a panel.

She did not react though later she applauded when Nick Smith and David Parker paid tribute to Graham who is currently suspended from the Greens because of his objection to Turei continuing as co-leader.

Out in the corridors, among the delegates, the view was consistent; Turei had muddied the Greens message and had threatened their credibility.

Though the conference was planned as an election manifesto agenda-setter intended to seriously debate the big environmental issues, it was constantly in danger of being over-shadowed by the political dramas of the past week.

But delegates were trying to talk about what is arguably likely to be the biggest issue confronting whoever forms the next Government and that it what are the limits to the further intensification of pastoral farming, dairy in particular.

This was at the heart of Labour’s water policy which Jacinda Arndern arrived to announce accompanied by a large trailing media pack.


They were interested only in her proposal to impose a levy on bottled water.

But she was talking about imposing tough new controls on farming which would include  nutrient limits on all catchments which would be enforced.

“To improve water quality we need to acknowledge the ongoing impact that the intensification of farming is having,” she said.

“We will require and enforce nutrient limits for all catchments.”

A  background paper released by Environment spokesperson David Parker said significant increases in the intensity of land use for livestock would in future require a consent under the Resource Management Act.

“This point of control will be used to stop rivers and lakes getting dirtier without delay,” the paper said.

Labour would also require that all intensively stocked land near waterways be fenced within five years.

Later in the day, National’s Environment Minister, Nick Smith, came with the Government’s response.

That was essentially a tidy up of the February policy to impose E-coli limits on rivers and streams to make 90% of them swimmable by 2040.

Smith admitted that the way it was released had been confusing.

However, in what was effectively a relaunch he said the policy would:

  • Impose clearer requirements for regional councils to improve water quality
  • Require regional councils to report on contributions to achieving national swimmability targets every five years
  • Provide a clarification on how regional councils should consider economic matters in setting their regional plans
  • Provide more detail on monitoring for freshwater and better processes regarding measuring water quality including macroinvertebrates and nutrient levels in waterways

Smith’s policy proposal essentially imposes the obligations to monitor and enforce standards on to local Councils.

But he had no response to Labour’s other proposal – to impose a charge on the commercial use of water.

This is fraught with difficulty, most notably that it opens the door for Maori to claim both a role in the allocation and to receive some of the proceeds of the revenue received.

Asked at a subsequent press conference what she would do about Maori insistence that they play a role in water allocation she said Labour had identified that as something they needed to work through.

Otherwise, Labour would use the proceeds of the water royalty to first settle Waitangi claims on water and then the balance would be given to councils who might then use it to assist farmers with fencing and riparian planting and other activities which would enhance water quality across a catchment.

Nowehere is the debate about the effects of the intensification of livestock farming more urgent than the debate over the future of the McKenzie basin — that vast tract of tussock land stretching from Burke’s Pass past Tekapo and on to Twizel and Omarama.

Traditionally it was typical high country merino farming.

But recently it has become subject to an increasing number of proposals to irrigate it and convert the land to dairy farming.

This would pose a threat to the pristine alpine lakes and streams and also alter one of New Zealand’s most iconic landscapes.

Limncol College lecturer, Dr Ann Brower, who has studied and written extensively on land reform in the high country argued that the Government’s programme of tenure review was the cause of the threats to the McKenzie.

Most of the land in the area is crown leasehold, and tenure review allows a lease to retire some of their lands into the conservation estate, and in return, they get to freehold other areas – often the flats – of the property.

The system is controversial because many run holders, once they have freeholded part of their land, have then sold it, often to overseas buyers for very high prices.

But the ability to freehold also encourages runholders to look for more intensive (and profitable) uses for their land.

“The big problem with tenure review is that we are privatising hundreds of thousands of hectares of the high country and losing millions of dollars at the same time,” she said.

“That means that we have privatised the shorelines of lakes Wanaka, Wakatipu, Tekapo and the rest.  .

“About 20% of what the crown has sold has been onsold.

“And when it is onsold it sells for just over 500 times what the crown sold it for.”

She said the system didn’t make sense economically and it didn’t make sense ecologically.

“If you map out the land that has been privatised you find that the most ecologically threatened land is the land that gets privatised.”

Brower’s argument against tenure review has struck a chord with both Labour’s David Parker and the Greens’ Eugenie Sage who told a political panel at the conference they would end it.

That panel debated a wide range of issues including a tourist tax (Parker refusing to confirm or deny Labour favoured one, Smith opposed) and 1080 which drew the remarkable statement from NZ First’s Dennis O” Rourke that his party did not, in fact,  oppose its use in the short term until a substitute could be found even though earlier in the day NZ First MP Clayton Mitchell had been tweeting the party’s opposition to 1080.

Smith also indicated that National could be interested in a cross party Climate Change Commission — a strong Labour and Greens policy plank.

And following on opening comments from the Government’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, that New Zealand would eventually need to have a “conversation’ about the potential of genetically modification in predator control, Sage said that which she remained sceptical about GMOs, she was not opposed to having that debate.

But whether it’s possible to debate any heavyweight policy at present is itself debatable as politics is overshadowed by all the dramas.