The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton

A persistent theme has been weaving between the Committee rooms at Parliament all this so-called “Scrutiny” week as MPs have probed Ministers and agencies about their work and plans.

The question has been simply what the environmental price might be if the country begins to accelerate its infrastructure building to try to stimulate economic growth.

That question has been accompanied by another: Are there times when we might have to prioritise development over the environment?

That is not a question that would have been asked during the last Government or, quite possibly, during any government since 1991 and the advent of the Resource Management Act.

Environment Minister Penny Simmonds frankly defined the dichotomy facing the Government when she appeared before the Environment Committee yesterday.

“It’s getting that balance between the actions that we take and environmental protection… we consider that the balance had swung too far towards environmental protection at the cost of not being able to get things done,” she said.

Speaking later in the day to the same Committee, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, reprised his speech to the recent Environmental Defence Society conference in which he talked about inconvenient truths.

“Under certain conditions, we must be willing to entertain environmentally damaging activities like mining or the provision of infrastructure,” he said.

“The question is: how much damage?

“If we are not prepared to examine tradeoffs critically, we will be dismissed as the dog that barks at every passing car.”

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In his speech, Upton said that where public resources were at stake, decisions about weighing costs and benefits must be examined.

He repeated the argument to the Committee yesterday.

“We have to make tradeoffs, and we need to be specific about tradeoffs,” he said.

“And, you know, a government is entitled to go off in a different direction.

“All I’d say to them is you justify that; you give us the facts, give us the evidence and see if it stacks up.

“What often happens is the Government says we want to support development, and we want to support the environment, and we’re going to do this.

“Well, okay. Hang on. What was the cost-benefit? What was the analysis behind that? And that often doesn’t get done.”

But as he explained to the Committee, that was a speech to environmentalists.

“I have to tell you, since I’ve given that one, I’ve rather warmed to the idea of giving a mirror image speech to a business audience to say, here are some inconvenient truths for you because I don’t think you can airbrush the environment out of the way because environmental breakdown is starting to impose some very significant costs. They’re costly to industry. They’re costly to communities,” he said.

POLITIK Regional Resources Minister Shane Jones at the Economic Development Committee yesterday

The tension between environmentalists and economic growth promoters emerged, perhaps not surprisingly, in an exchange at the Economic Development Committee between Regional Resources Minister Shane Jones and Labour List MP Glen Benett.

The MP asked Jones what tangible things in the Budget would make “a change for us in regional New Zealand.”

“What region do you come from?” asked Jones.

“Taranaki,” replied Bennett.

“Oil and gas,” was Jones’ immediate reply.

Bennett started to object.

Jones: “No, no, you asked me for an answer. I’ve given you an answer. Taranaki has subsisted and grown on the basis of black gold and white gold. Why would it be any different going forward?”

Bennett persisted in asking what specific projects Jones’ new $1.2 million capital fund might invest in.

“I want the fund administrators to be informed by what are the priorities that the people in that region are prepared to back,” he said.

“And once again, I say, in the entirety of my lifetime, those two industries have sustained Pakeha and Maori to an enormously high quality of life.”

In an exchange with the former Labour Government Maori Development Minister, Willie Jackson, Jones also talked about trade offs but his were with Maori.

“’ I keep using the term tradeoffs in rohes and regions in New Zealand,” he said.

“There are some tradeoffs.

“It’s just not possible to clutch and bring every pre-European pre-colonial concept and impose it in a completely different economic environment.

“We’ve all got to evolve, and I’m all for Maori development, and I’m all for Maori empowerment.

“But I’m not for people using our tikanga or our kaupapa to hold regions to ransom.”

 Jones put the case for economic development to the Committee.

“I’d say for the last 40 years, progressively, productivity per capita has been in a decline,” he said.

“It can go back. So, for the majority of my adult life as both a farmer and a businessman myself. We have been on a downward trajectory.

“Our trajectory is an inverse connection, inverse relationship to the trajectory of Ireland and Singapore.

“How can you take the products that we might be focused on and generate more value?

“Number one, people give up because you cannot get environmental consent for a business within a decent period of time.

“So, they bought it because there are other places to set up businesses, not just in New Zealand.”

POLITIK TThe Greens Transport spokesperson, Julie-Anne Genter

As far as the Greens are concerned, this sort of talk is fighting talk, and when Transport Minister Simeon Brown appearing before the Transport and Infrastructure Committee made the argument for more roads and improving traffic flow to enhance productivity, he faced a sharp response from the Greens Transport spokesperson, Julie-Anne Genter.

Brown drew her fire with a provocative justification for the new Government’s emphasis on roads.

“When you have increased travel times because the last government didn’t have a focus on economic growth and productivity as an objective, travel times weren’t actually a priority for the last government,” he said.

“Travel times and reducing travel times are priorities for this Government.

“And some people might like to go around and bike. That’s good.

“But actually, we want to make sure people can get where they need to go. And the modes that they choose. And we want to see reduced travel times.”

Genter: “So travel times for you is the number one metric ….        

Brown: “That will be the metric ….

Genter:  And is that travel times for all road users or just cars and trucks? 

Brown: “Well, travel times for all users, but ….

Genter: “So pedestrians as well as public transport ….

Brown: “Ultimately, the vast, vast majority of New Zealanders woke up this morning and went to work in the car.

“So actually, we have to be realistic about the investment that we make and the choices that we make.

“And if we want to improve productivity in this country, we need to reduce travel times with people in cars.”

This new mood in the Beehive was summed up by Simmonds at the Environment Committee.

“And so we consider there does need to be a rebalancing, not a disregard of the environment, but a rebalancing.”