Gordon Campbell on Nick Smith’s latest steps to undermine river quality

The Ruataniwha dam proposed for Hawke’s Bay has been controversial on a number of counts, but the issues involved have just cranked up a whole new level. See if you can square these two positions – both of them to do with a critical Department of Conservation draft submission on the dam project and its likely impact on water quality that was nipped in the bud – apparently after pressure was applied. Here’s Exhibit A, which was Conservation Minister Nick Smith to reporters on Tuesday, September 17:

“I did not know that this draft document even existed until this morning. And to have accusations that somehow I have covered up its existence – it is somewhat difficult to cover something up when you didn’t even know it existed.”

And here’s Exhibit B. It is an email dated 29 July at 6pm from deputy DOC chief Doris Johnson, to then-director general Al Morrison, and three other senior DOC managers. The email was sent in the wake of Johnson’s meeting earlier that day with Smith:

Hello, The minister wants to see the submission we are proposing to make on the Ruataniwha before it is lodged. I suggest you send it over tomorrow for him to consider the draft and also attach the briefing note you provided me. I am in Hamilton tomorrow but back on Wednesday. He is concerned and is likely to query whether we leave it all to the EPA to consider.

Almost immediately afterwards, the 50 page draft submission was reduced to a two paragraph comment. According to Radio New Zealand, its sources say the decision not to submit the draft submission to the Board of Inquiry into the Ruataniwha dam project was conveyed to staff on the morning of Wednesday 31 July. There could hardly be a more evident paper trail of officials being leaned on – in this case, to torpedo critical findings that the dam would facilitate the release of damaging nitrates into the river system. As RNZ reports:

The draft submission on the Ruataniwha Dam project said the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council proposal was an “untested” and “risky” approach to water management which could kill the rivers involved. The submission…said the council’s approach to managing toxins from intensive agriculture associated with the dam might not be sufficient to support life in rivers. It also said the ability to reverse the toxicity would be limited. The submission said the risks of the dam project had not been fully assessed, with an inadequate management plan for potentially high impact effects on rivers.

And as for Smith’s role….to reverse his own rhetorical question: how could he be asking on 29 July to see a submission that as late as September 17, he claimed not to know existed? Potentially, the issue entails the misleading of Parliament in that on Tuesday, Smith had also said:

“I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The member has claimed in the question that I had access to a report that I did not do so, until I heard it on Radio New Zealand National this morning.”

To hear Smith’s contorted explanation of how his positions are consistent – it comes down to whether he “ had access” and saw with his own two eyes, the full draft document before this week – you can check this link to today’s Morning Report interview. Even so, it is plain that before July 29, Smith had at least fore-knowledge of the contents of the draft submission and had discussed the submission with Doris Johnson that day – and as a result, DOC almost immediately withdrew from the process. Supposedly, “junior staff” had exceeded their brief. The over-riding point of that brief being – apparently – Don’t Take a Conservation Position that Might Annoy a Government Committed to Intensive Dairying Whatever the Impacts May Be On River Quality.

The neutrality of public servants – and their ability to fulfill their statutory obligations – are coming under increasing attack from Ministers and their staff. Senior managers see which way the wind is blowing from the Beehive, and jump to comply, or else. DOC has been bullied, and told that water quality is none of its core business. One can argue the ‘angels on pinhead’ point as to whether or not DOC has an interest in issues of water quality and related marine and bird life. Common sense would say it does. Surely, even if there was crossover with the Environment Protection Agency and regional council responsibilities for water quality, it wouldn’t hurt to have had DOC’s input on this matter as well – given that this report had been commissioned by someone at DOC, had garnered expert opinion from external consultants and was virtually completed? The taxpayers who funded the staff hours and expensive expertise that went into the draft DOC submission have been robbed. And the media and Parliament have been misled by Smith – to the extent that while he may or may not have “had access” to the draft document itself, he was well aware of its likely contents in late July, and had taken steps that resulted in the submission being quashed. Yet this week, Smith has played the innocent. Dirty waters, indeed.