If anybody stole the show at National’s Blue Greens Forum at the weekend at Waitangi, it was Environment Minister Penny Simmonds.

When she said she had re-directed millions from staff training in Wellington to local conservation boards in the regions, she was greeted with widespread applause.

She had hit the bullseye as far as grassroots National Party members were concerned.

For them, all politics is local, and they simply want Wellington to get out of the way.

They received a powerful endorsement on that from the chair of the Northland District Council, Geoff Crawford, with his real examples of how Wellington had obstructed local efforts to begin eradicating the rampantly spreading seaweed, caulerpa.

But as Environmental Defence Society CEO Gary Taylor pointed out to the Forum, what the National Party might believe and want is often different from what its two coalition partners want.

He was specifically talking about the fast-track planning legislation being boosted and promoted by NZ First Minister Shane Jones.

Around a quarter or a third of the 150 attendees at the Forum (a record) were farmers.

If there has been one environmental issue that has provoked almost universal opposition from farmers it has been David Parker’s National Policy Standard on freshwater.

The one-size-fits-all approach that he took angered farmers who said he was aiming for such a high water purity standard that some farmers would go out of business and that the rules should have been set catchment by catchment to recognise local differences.

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Simmonds told the Forum she was now redrafting the rules, a process that, with consultation, could take up to two years.

“We need sensible and pragmatic environmental rules that achieve real outcomes, balanced with the need to enable responsible commercial and recreational activities,” she said.

“Finger-pointing and blame will not support this change.

“Instead, we need to be open-minded, ready to listen, and then vigorous in their implementation, particularly working alongside those actually making the changes at the grassroots level.

She proposed that catchment groups should become the key players in the debate.

“I refer to the many catchment groups ensuring stock exclusion from waterways, encouraging riparian plantings, recreating filtering wetlands, changing farming practices to prevent sediment runoff,” she said.

“Local solutions by local people, helping and supporting their communities.

“This sense of localism, you will see right across Government whether it is in health, education or environment.

“We know that local people are more likely to know the issues and find the solutions.”

In saying that, she pretty much defined the overriding theme of the Forum.

And she has put her money where her mouth is.

“There was 21 million that was designated for upskilling the workforce within the Ministry for the Environment for freshwater, farm plains and monitoring,” she said.

“I’m shifting that money to the catchment groups because I have yet to see anything actually happen from having better and more people in Wellington.

“I’ve seen a lot more happen when people on the ground that are planting the riparian planting and doing the fencing; those catchment groups are where I think the action happens.

“So I want the money straight out there into the catchment groups.”

This was greeted with widespread applause.

The Forum got a practical lesson in how Wellington got in the way of local initiatives from the chair of the Northland Regional Council, Geoff Crawford.

In 2021, an invasive exotic seaweed, Caulerpa, was found at Great Barrier Island. It began to spread to other Hauraki Gulf islands, so in February 2023 and again at the end of March 2023, Crawford, then the chair of the Council’s Bio-Security Committee, sent two letters to Bio-Security Minister Damien O’Connor, asking for support for a surveillance plan.

He got no response.

Then, two months later, in May 2023, Caulerpa was found at Rawhiti in the Bay of Islands.

Crawford sent another letter, asking for $20 million to eradicate it.

This time, he got a response, and “we came back with $1 million, which is not that great a success,” he said.

“In Damien’s words from his farming background, get it done. 

“This excitement soon diminished as we started dealing with the underbelly of Government and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

“They had their own agenda, and it wasn’t eradication.

“It was watching and reporting.

“The Northland Regional Council wasn’t happy with this approach as  eradication was the only option for us.”

So, the Council organised a tender process to deal with the seaweed, and an innovative idea using a suction dredge was presented.

“MPI wanted the innovation removed from the tender process,” he said.

“Luckily, support from hapu swung it in our favour.

“We have started the trial and have had a huge amount of success.

“The government yesterday committed another $5 million for eradication, which shows some of the trust we have  been striving for.”

But it was a bitter-sweet funding allocation because  MPI then insisted that the program be monitored from Wellington.

The Council has been told it could take up to three months for a person to be appointed to do that, and the money can’t start to flow till then.”

There were more examples.

POLITIK

They were accompanied by pleas for the Government to do more than talk and consult about environmental problems but to take action on the ground.

The veteran forest campaigner Stephen King, who in the 1970s staged a tree-top protest to stop the King Country Pureora forest from being logged, was there in his trademark shorts and bare feet.

He made an emotional plea to Conservation Minister Tama Potaka to take action against predators in the Waipoua Forest. He said the last 1080 drop had been ten years ago, and the skeletons of dying trees were now clearly visible.

Potaka said that DOC and he agreed that the war on weeds and predators needed to be increased.

However, the DOC estate had been constantly growing so that the same funding was required to cover more and more land and activities.

While Potaka talked about “flax roots” solutions, he also spoke about priorities.

“It’s getting back to saying what are high conservation areas and really focus on them and prioritise them, rather than trying to be everything for everybody,” he said, agreeing that the Waipoua Forest would be one of those areas.

Finance Minister Nicola Willis has singled DOC out as a department which will need to make savings in its budget.

And Prime Minister Christopher Luxon seemed to endorse that when he was asked on Saturday about DOC funding.

“We are quite right to ask every government agency to go back and say are there efficiencies, are there savings? Are they smarter? Are there better ways of working where you can deliver the same outcome for less money,” he said.

“We want to know that. And so at this stage, what we’re doing is pushing all the CEs (Chief Executives), all the government agencies to generate those savings.

“And I can tell you, having seen the largesse that’s built up in the bureaucracy, that’s built up in many of these organisations, we want those resources moved from the front, from the back office to the front line.”

That, of course, is what Penny Simmonds and Geoff Crawford are talking about.

But, National is also committed to introducing New Zealand First’s fast-track planning process.

POLITIK Environmental Defence Society CEO Gary Taylor at the Forum

The CEO of the Environmental Defence Society, Gary Taylor, though he is not opposed to fast-rack planning legislation, was highly critical of the Government proposal, which would give the final consenting power to the Minister.

Expert panels would be able to set conditions that might be applied to the consent, but the consent decision itself would not be appealable and would rest with the Minister.

The proposal smacks of Sir Robert Muldoon’s 1979 National Development Act, which was one of the inspirations of Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s critique of Muldoon, “Unbridled Power.”

The Act allowed the Government to declare a project a work of national importance and to go ahead without being considered within the usual planning process.

Three National MPs opposed Muldoon’s legislation, and it was widely criticised within the National Party itself.

It is still being determined how the NZ First proposal will work. When asked for specifics, Luxon said the Bill was still being drafted.

But Taylor was forthright in his criticism.

“Why put Ministers in harm’s way approving specific projects?” he asked.

“Where that has happened elsewhere, such as in West Australia, corrupt practice has emerged, and Ministers have become mired in multiple court proceedings.

“The approach represents constitutional overreach by the Executive arm. National has been there before and got burned.”

What is not clear is whether the new Act will specify particular projects or whether it will simply nominate sectors such as renewable energy projects that may be directed to it for consent.

But the real political challenge will be reconciling the heavy-handed centralism of the proposed Act with the clear desire within National’s base for localism which implies a local voice in the consent process.

A class dilemma facing the Government might come with the need for Transpowet to expand and develop its transmission network as more renewable generation comes onstream.

Transpower CEO Alison Andrew recently told a Select Committee that any time it wanted to build a new line or enhance a line that caused a visual impact on the landowner, it had to negotiate.

Those negotiations were not always easy.

Those landowners are predominantly farmers, a core part of National’s constituency.

Luxon, however, was dismissive of these concerns.

“We are going to make tough decisions,” he said.

“Am I going to get hard? Yes. as hard-nosed so we can get this country moving again.

“This country has become stultifying and calcified by our resource management processes.

“It is unacceptable the amount of time it takes and the cost that it takes to get anything done in this country. That’s why I’ve called it  an obstruction economy. And I mean it. “

Luxon was not at the Waitangi Forum when Simmonds spoke, but the reception she got might serve as a reminder that National Party members regard their local autonomy very jealously.