"Measuring Up" - Speech on 25th Anniversary of Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

  • Nick Smith

Kia ora hui hui tatou katoa


It is great to join you for this special celebration of a quarter of a century of the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.


Tonight, I want to join with others and acknowledge the huge contribution made by Helen Hughes, Morgan Williams and Dr Jan Wright and their staff, and to outline the Government’s ideas for expanding the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner.


First some acknowledgements:


Can I recognise the Speaker, Jeanette Fitzsimons, Charles Chauvel, Nicky Wagner, Dr Paul Reynolds from the Ministry, Donald Hannah of the EPA.


New Zealandis a country in which our environment has extraordinary importance.  Clean and green helps define how the world sees us.  Our natural resources underpin so much of our wealth.  Most importantly, our environment defines who we are as Kiwis. 


Our mutual love for our majestic white mountains, rich green forests, golden beaches, rugged coast and unique wildlife helps bind us together as New Zealanders.  It is about who we are.


It did not start out that way.  The latest Waitangi Report on flora and fauna rightly observes that our early development showed little respect for protecting that which made these islands special.  Recreating an English countryside and development at any cost was the mantra for several generations.


That changed in the 60s and 70s with the battles over Lake Manapouri, podocarp forests in Pareora and the beech forests of Mariua.


The establishment of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in 1986 was a significant part of the recalibration in our society that put far greater weight on valuing our natural environment.


It is interesting to reflect on the Parliamentary debate 25 years ago on the PCE’s creation, and the expectations of that time for the office.


This was pre-RMA.  The big debate then was over what would succeed the Town and Country Planning Act, the Water and Soil Conservation Act, the Ministry of Works, and the Ministry of Energy.  Designing an auditor of our environmental systems was difficult when the environmental system itself had not yet been determined.


What is clear is that Parliament had high expectations of an office that would help ensure New Zealand would be a country where every forest would not be cut down, where our beaches and coast would be free of pollution, where our lakes and rivers would be safe to swim in, and where their children and grandchildren could still catch a snapper and collect a pipi.


If you compare the last generation of 25 years, we have been far more careful custodians of our natural resources than any of the preceding six quarter centuries.  That is at least a partial success.  But we must acknowledge we still have significant challenges ahead.


This turns me to the focus of my address – the future.


Tonight the Government is releasing a public discussion paper called ‘Measuring Up’ on proposals to expand the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.


These legislative changes being put forward are the most significant since the office was established.  They propose that the Commissioner be required to publish a comprehensive State of the Environment Report every five years, covering such issues as water quality, air quality, coast and oceans management, waste and the well being of our native plants and animals.


We are also proposing amendments to the Resource Management Act to enable consistent environmental monitoring to support the new Environment Reporting Act.


The context for these reforms is four fold.


First, New Zealand is the only OECD country without a legal requirement for state of the environment reporting.  We need it to strengthen the integrity of our clean, green brand.  Without it, we are poorly equipped to contest those who question whether it is just a slick advertising brand.


Secondly, such reporting needs to be independent of Government.  The 2008 furore over Chapter 13 being excluded raised the suspicion that the report was being massaged away from uncomfortable conclusions.


If State of the Environment Reporting is to have integrity it must be neither public relations nor environmental advocacy.  It must just say it as it is.


Thirdly, we need to acknowledge that the deficiencies in our current environmental monitoring.  This problem was highlighted in the OECD 2007 environmental performance review of New Zealand.


Take the important issue of water quality.  Some Regional Councils monitor only areas of significant problems, some monitor areas used for recreation, others try to monitor a representative sample.  They each measure different things.  You can use the data to pretend there is no problem or to exaggerate the problem.


Time is wasted debating the data rather than addressing the problem.


The Land and Water Forum report noted the fragmented management of fresh water, and the monitoring of it, was contributing to poor outcomes and recommended this more consistent approach as part of the way forward.


Fourthly, this is part of a broader bluegreen agenda about improving New Zealand’s overall environmental governance.


First, we bolstered the Ministry for the Environment’s policy capability.  Then we introduced the new Environmental Protection Authority.  This third step strengthens the audit functions of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.


This new framework for New Zealand’s natural resources mirrors the well accepted best practice governance arrangements for managing our country’s financial resources – Treasury as policy advisor, the Reserve Bank as arms-length regulator, complemented by Parliament's Controller and Auditor-General.


This new role will strengthen the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's other work.  When you read the titles of the PCE’s approximately 200 reports over its 25-year history, it feels a bit scatter gun.


Being responsible for pulling together a comprehensive state of the environment report will help the office identify where there are holes in our environmental systems and where further inquires can most make a difference.


The final point I wish to make this evening is that this proposal should not be considered a criticism of the Commissioner’s past roles; rather a complement.


Over 25 years, Helen Hughes, Morgan Williams and Jan Wright have carved out a heritage of genuine independence.  Whether it be reports on 1080, on Growing for Good, or on Coastal Management, the public has come to trust the office as a brave straight shooter.  That is exactly the foundation needed on which to build this new role of statutory environmental reporting.


The Government looks forward to public discussion on the proposed new Environmental Reporting Act with submissions closing in October, a symposium planned for next February, and legislation intended for next year.  Our intention, if we are privileged to lead the next Government, would be for the PCE to produce the first report in 2013.


I met recently with my Japanese counterpart in Tokyo.  He joked that I must have the easiest job in the Cabinet room given his perception of New Zealand’s near perfect environment, a perspective you could appreciate when he was grappling with the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.


While I assured him he was incorrect, it is a reminder of how richly blessed we are with our environment, and how important it is that we keep it that way.


My congratulations again to the three commissioners and their staff for their contribution over 25 years.


There is much to be proud of but still much to do.