Green MP Steve Abel

If there was one issue that united farmers in opposition to the Labour Government, it was the battle of the waterways between farmers and Environment Minister David Parker.

Parker won the first round with his 2020 National Policy Standard on Freshwater Management (NPSFM) which imposed tough new standards on waterways which farmers hated.

But both National and ACT courted farmers during the election campaign.

One of their big promises was to effectively gut Parker’s by moving the setting water quality standards from Wellington to local catchment groups.

And so the coalition has begun that process with a Bill that has its origins in an ACT Private Members Bill from the last Parliament which will effectively remove a key section from Parker’s standard.

That Bill is now before the Primary Production Select Committee.

Parker has not been there to defend his Standard; instead that job has been left to Green MP, Steve Abel.

He is a former Greenpeace campaigner and a regular attendee at National’s Blue Greens forums so he has a thorough understanding of the farmer view on water quality standards.

That makes him a formidable protagonist in the debate.

During the terms of the Labour Government organisations like Greenpeace had persuaded Parker (and Labour and the Greens) to propose tough new water quality standards to clean up the country’s waterways.

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The Greens summed up the campaign by saying its goal was to have “swimmable rivers”.

The 2008-17 National Government had adopted “wadeable rivers” as its bottom line on water quality.

That prompted Parker to set up a complex web of advisory committees and to produce in 2020 his NPSFM which immediately provoked almost universal opposition from farmers.

His proposals were likely to hit dairy farmers hardest, and DairyNZ published economic modelling showing that the standards could lead to an annual fall in GDP of $6 billion by 2050.

At the heart of Parker’s National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management was the concept of  “Te Mana O Te Wai”, which translated into a “hierarchy of obligations”.

 That statement prioritised

      • first, the health and well-being of water bodies and freshwater ecosystems
      • second, the health needs of people (such as drinking water) 
      • third, the ability of people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being, now and in the future.

But now, the coalition Government’s Bill proposes that these “obligations” need not be considered when considering an application for resource consent under the Resource Management Act.

DairyNZ’s Head of Policy, Roger Lincoln, submitted to the Primary Production Committee considering the Bill that “in practice, proving alignment with the hierarchy through a resource consent has proven prohibitive for consent applicants.”

He said their removal would provide much-needed clarity and efficiency.

Federated Farmers’ submission was similar, saying that removing the requirement for resource consent applicants to consider the hierarchy of obligations would make resource consent applications simpler and cheaper to prepare.

However, the two farmer organisations faced Green MP and former Greenpeace campaigner Steve Abel on the Select Committee.

Before entering Parliament, he was one of the leading voices calling for tougher controls on water quality.

“Federated Farmers is always very happy to see regulations gotten rid of that restrict your perceived right to exploit freshwater resources for profits,” he told a Committee hearing on Tuesday.

“I wonder, in terms of the ecological impact and the vast ecological destruction of freshwater that we’ve seen, particularly with dairy intensity in Canterbury, there’s 11,000l of grey water produced for every one litre of dairy milk produced.

“Who should place the limits on your exploitation and degradation of fresh water, if not through these sorts of regulatory frameworks that make it clear that there is a hierarchy of values that need to be upheld, such as Te Mana O Te Wai?”

Federated Farmers Vice President Colin Hurst said that was already happening through regional planning processes.

Abel contested that claim.

“Yet we’re seeing water degradation getting worse in Canterbury,” he said.

“We’re seeing nitrate levels going up.

“We’re seeing the likes of Selwyn Council having to find hundreds of millions of dollars to decontaminate their drinking water supplies because of intensive farming activities that are degrading the freshwater.”

“Not at all,” replied Hurst.

“A lot of our farmers are making significant reductions.

“I’d point to the Hinds catchment, with the regulated reduction of 36% over the next ten years.

“So, there are significant activities going on the farm. So, I refute your point completely. “

Abel suggested to Hurst that he actually accepted the need for regulatory frameworks to set limits on the exploitation of freshwater.

“I  think it’s already happening. It’s no surprises here,” said Hurst.

“And farmers are on the journey with us. No question about it.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to say, and we can provide some more evidence that our farmers, especially dairy farmers, are making significant reductions on this.”

Hurst said that the introduction of the new standards had meant that consents were stalled in Canterbury.

“That’s why we’ve had a big backlog of consents in Canterbury,” he said.

“And again, that’s why we would definitely encourage the freeing up of the consenting process.”

DairyNZ’s Principal Regional Policy Advisor, David Cooper, joined Federated Farmers in supporting the removal of the hierarchy of obligations for much the same reasons.

His submission said that in practice, proving alignment with the hierarchy through a resource consent had proven prohibitive for consent applicants.

“The amendment will provide much-needed clarity and efficiency,” the submissions said.

But he told the Committee DairyNZ supported regulation.

“We need national direction,” he said.

“We need regional councils to work with Tangata Whenua and their communities to identify where they need to get to, what timeframe they need, and how they’re going to get there.

“Ideally, we’ll focus on catchment groups working at the catchment level to identify and deliver on the outcomes that everyone wants to see within that catchment and the best outcomes.” 

However, there was strong support for maintaining the hierarchy of obligations from Councils that covered large rural areas such as Taranaki, Waikato, and Horizons.

The Waikato Regional Council’s submission that it recognised that the intention of the Bill was to create a stopgap while the Government reviewed Parker’s 2020 National Policy Standard for Freshwater Management. (NPSFM)

“However, we consider the provisions in the Bill, as currently worded, will create legal ambiguity and unnecessary lengthening of consent processes whilst this ambiguity is reconciled,” the submission said.

“Even if the hierarchy of obligations is removed from consent processes, applicants will still need to address what is in the regional plans and the rest of the NPSFM 2020.”

The Chief Executive of the Taranaki Regional Council, Steve Ruru, said it was important that the Government be careful of the potential unintended consequences of removing the hierarchy.

“It’s a very firm platform from which the rest of the national policy statement needs to be implemented,” he said.

He cautioned the Committee that it was clearly the intention that water quality would be addressed and improved over time.

“This is about a journey over time, moving on that journey to address water quality issues and doing so,” he said.

“It’s also about getting a way to balance. It’s not about absolutism.

“And so all three priorities within the hierarchy have to be given a level of balance.”

Work began in 2019 on Parker’s 2020 Policy Standard, but there were concerns that he was attempting too much during the process.

The advisory group most closely connected to farmers, the Regional Sector subgroup, was always concerned about the proposals’ impact 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. “

Those practicalities have provoked Federated Farmers, DairyNZ, and many farmers themselves to call for the removal of the hierarchy of obligations.

But it is a stopgap.

What is really needed is a new Policy Standard which reconciles the various interests that compete over water quality.