Environment Minister David Parker

Environment Minister David Parker is pressing ahead with a report which will almost certainly advocate greater rights for Maori over water allocation.

Parker has set up a working group to investigate allocation, and he has done so only 12 days before an election.

And just over three weeks ago he also paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to non governmental organisations to enable them to participate in his new planning processes in a move described by Federated Farmers as “financially reckless.”

Two NGOs turned the money down because it was too close to the election.

But Prime Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday defended his Minister.

He said the working group was an absolutely appropriate thing for a government to continue to do.

But this is not the only executive action Parker has been responsible for in what is usually defined as a dead zone for Government actions.

His Ministry for the Environment has been distributing six-figure sums of money to environmental NGOs to allow them to help implement his new Natural and Built Environments Act — the replacement for the Resource Management Act.

Both Federated Farmers and Fish and Game turned the money down. Federated Farmers said it was offered $600,000.

Strictly speaking, what Parker has done is within Cabinet Office guidelines for the period leading up to an election.

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A Cabinet Office circular from January this year said the government has a three-year mandate to govern. 

“It is not bound by the caretaker convention during the pre-election period,” it said.

“This means that the government continues to have full power to make decisions in the pre-election period. Cabinet continues to meet up until the election to consider government business.”

The circular said that there were some areas where actions were restricted.

“Successive governments have, however, chosen to restrict their actions to some extent in the period immediately before a general election in two main areas: in making significant appointments, and in relation to some government advertising,” the circular said.

Cabinet met as usual on Monday, so the process of government continued, but in the post-Cabinet media conference, interestingly, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson gave as one of the reasons for no final decision on the future of the Mt Ruapehu ski fields was the proximity to the election.

“You’ll appreciate we’re two weeks out from an election in terms of the amount of room that gives the current government,” he said.

“We think the appropriate and pragmatic decision is to roll things forward several months and then take another look at it.”

The question of water allocation and particularly allocation to Maori, has been deferred and avoided by governments since 2012 when the Waitangi Tribunal found that Maori rights in 1840 “included rights of authority and control over their taonga (water bodies), and rights akin to the English concept of ownership.”

That declaration is reinforced by Parker’s Natural and Built Environments Act, which requires that anybody exercising powers and performing functions and duties under this Act must give effect to the principles of te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Simply, the Act says that the question of water allocation and Maori can longer be avoided.

In their submission the legislation, the Freshwater Iwi Leaders Group said the government had failed to deal with the issue of iwi and hapū rights and interests in freshwater in developing the legislation.

“The proposals in the Bill will continue to prejudice those rights and interests until agreement is reached between iwi and hapū and the Crown to resolve these matters, including ensuring iwi and hapū have equitable access to freshwater resources as of right.”

The new Act requires the establishment of the Freshwater Working Group that Parker announced on Monday; that it reports by October 31 next year and then the Minister must engage with iwi and hapu in each regional to produce an “allocation statement” on the issues relevant to the allocation of freshwater if agreed between the Minister and iwi and hapū.”

In other words, the Group that Parker set up on Monday will define the terms on which the issues that went before the Waitangi Tribunal in 2012 are finally resolved.

Its work cannot help but be contentious because some parts of the country where Maori are seeking water (e.g. Canterbury) are already over-allocated.

Hipkins yesterday argued that the establishment of the Working Group was imnevitable.

“Fresh water allocation is going to continue to be a big, big discussion topic for the government after the election, regardless of who the government is,” he said.

“We have a track record here of continuing to work collaboratively with the communities who have an interest in water allocation.

“And that’s exactly what we’ll continue to do.”

National, of course, proposes to repeal the legislation which has been used to establish the working group, and then it proposes to return to the Resource Management Act, which makes no provision for water allocation.

National’s Environment spokesperson Scott Simpson told POLITIK that Issues relating to water allocation were both complex and historic.

“We don’t have a shortage of water in NZ, but we do have regions where existing allocations are inhibiting future economic growth and creating environmental stress,” he said.

“Those are matters a future government is going to have to resolve, but that it has taken this Labour government six years to even form one of the workings groups that it has become infamous for speaks volumes about the priority they have placed on the issue of allocation. “

But the working group is not the only mechanism Parker has instigated in the run-up to the election to deal with freshwater issues.

In the first week of September, he also offered a number of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) substantial funding for them to participate in various processes under the new Natural and Built Environments Act.

“The Ministry for the Environment is looking to fund NGO participation in resource management and freshwater reform processes to the tune of up to $600,000 over three years for each participating organisation,” Federated Farmers RMA spokesperson Mark Hooper said

“Federated Farmers were approached to participate in the pilot programme and were presented with an alarmingly short timeline – a rush job of four weeks just so it can be completed before the election.

“This doesn’t pass the sniff test for us at this stage of the political cycle, so we are turning the money down out of principle, and we’re calling on other organisations to do the same.”

“It’s not appropriate for me to be trying to shovel taxpayers’ money out the door as fast as they can on the eve of voters going to the polls,” Hooper said.

“It seems financially reckless to be looking to sign contracts just weeks before an election, particularly when there is a chance these programmes will be scrapped altogether.

“I want to know why the Ministry are in such a hurry. There is absolutely no reason why this needs to be rushed through before the election,” Hooper said.

Fish and Game also turned the funding down.

“We will not participate in the pilot programme,” said their CEO, Corina Jordan.

“We want to strengthen our relationship with the rural sector – many of our licence holders are from rural communities, and many play a crucial role in maintaining, protecting and enhancing freshwater habitats such as wetlands.

“What we are focused on is working with communities to find strong and enduring solutions for freshwater issues, and we believe that is the most effective approach.”

If National gets to form the next government, then it will have to unwind both the Working Group and the participation programmes because it is proposing to scrap the Natural and Built Environments Act.

If that were to be the case, then they might legitimately raise questions about how much the processes have cost.