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Editorial: One Plan to rule them all

In a couple of weeks, New Zealand’s stunning scenery will once again get the kind of publicity we couldn’t normally afford, as Sir Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit hits the silver screen. So it was probably inevitable that those who question this country’s “100% Pure” brand would also take the opportunity to highlight its superficiality. As the New York Times has noted, “critics say the realm New Zealand’s marketers have presented is as fantastical as dragons and wizards”.

It is, of course, a good thing we continue to debate the merits of our environmental record. And for that reason, we must not let a significant milestone in that process pass unnoticed. After four years of intensive collaboration among more than 60 fractious lobby groups, the Land and Water Forum has just presented its third and final report to the Government. The forum can claim some notable successes. Set up in 2008 to bring farmers, industry groups and environmentalists around the table, it was given a mandate by the Government to come up with a regime to protect and restore our vulnerable and degraded waterways, while also enabling the continued economic exploitation of our most valuable resource.

It was a unique experiment in collaborative governance, based on the notion that if adversaries work together to find common ground, durable solutions will emerge. In many respects, the forum can rightly claim to have delivered peace and progress. For starters, the participants achieved what many would have thought impossible – they kept working together through setbacks and disappointments rather than reverting to their trenches.

The forum has also given iwi a genuine voice – perhaps for the first time – in how our waterways should be cared for. And it established a broad-based consensus that, if we are to restore our polluted waterways and prevent damage to those that are still healthy, limits must be set on how much water can be taken out for irrigation and other industrial uses, and on how much contamination should be allowed.

The forum’s integrated package of proposed reforms would see local government work with communities to develop rules for each catchment, and time frames and methods for meeting them. These rules would be consistent with, or better than, “bottom-line” national standards. But those bottom-line standards don’t yet exist. In other words, a key pillar of the proposed regime is absent. Without those standards, our freshwater management is little further ahead. The forum wanted to oversee the development of the standards earlier this year, which would have made sense. After four years immersed in the issues, it was the logical body to do this critical work. Instead, Environment Minister Amy Adams put the job in the hands of a seemingly secret group of officials. Until Adams produces those standards, and until the public is convinced that they are robust enough, much of the progress achieved by the forum will be for naught.

In the meantime, there are worrying signs that the Government does not understand the need for meaningful rules. In particular, the attack by Primary Industries Minister David Carter on the Horizons Regional Council’s “One Plan” does little to inspire confidence. Endorsed by a landmark Environment Court ruling in September, it is the first regional plan to establish hard limits on the volume of nutrients allowed to flush from farmland into waterways. Despite expert evidence that good farmers can dramatically reduce their nutrient leaching without loss of profit, Carter has savaged the plan as having “significant” impact on profits and productivity.

The One Plan is the outcome of the old-fashioned process of adversarial hearings and litigation; it is a remarkable document, but so far it affects just one region. The Land and Water Forum has drawn up the architecture for a water-management regime that could benefit the whole country. But whether its work turns out to be an interesting but largely fruitless experiment in collaborative decision-making, or the beginning of a better future for our lakes and rivers, is uncertain: it depends whether the Government has the conviction to produce a set of national bottom-line standards that protect the freshwater values that all New Zealanders cherish – and which we might also be proud to trumpet around the world.