31 July 2014
This week’s stoush over the Fish and Game Council points to a deeper challenge confronting the Government as it contemplates a third term in office.
There is no doubt of this Government’s commitment to boosting economic development, but that is increasingly running up against the dual brick walls of environmental law and mounting public anxiety about environmental values being traded off for economic advantage.
Last year’s skirmish over the Resource Management Act should have been a salutary lesson. Remember the hype of the National Party’s Conference announcement then of a bold, new housing plan, based on streamlining the principles and operation of the Resource Management Act, to speed up development. It ran into immediate difficulties when the Government discovered that while there was near universal support for improving the processes of the Resource Management Act, neither UnitedFuture nor the Māori Party would support any changes to, or weakening of its principles. Curiously, rather than compromise, and proceed with those areas where it could get support, the Government adopted an “all or nothing” approach and quietly shelved its plans for another day.
That pattern has continued in other areas over recent months. Independent Boards of Inquiry reports have dealt crippling if not fatal blows to the Ruataniwha Dam in Hawkes Bay and the flyover around Wellington’s Basin Reserve. A clear picture is emerging: the trade-off between big projects and the environment is erring increasingly on the side of the environment, leaving the Government’s plans to streamline environmental law looking more and more out of step with public expectation.
It is against this backdrop that the role of a statutory body like Fish and Game assumes fresh significance. In pursuit of its mandate, Fish and Game has been taking an increasingly strident line against issues which impinge on deteriorating water quality in our lakes and rivers. The most obvious of these practices is dairy intensification, which brings the debate strongly back to the Government’s economic development agenda and explains its obvious sensitivity on the matter.
But here is where a reality check is needed. Recent developments make it clear public tolerance for the “environment is nice, but the economy is nicer” argument is evaporating and pressure will mount for a stronger line to be drawn in the future. Ironically, the one thing stopping that from happening more suddenly and starkly is the Green Party, whose zealotry and intolerance on those issues scares off many voters who might otherwise be sympathetic to the cause.
What did or did not go on between the Conservation Minister and the people at the Fish and Game meeting is really just fish and chip paper.
Far more important is the challenge to National to understand that while there is general support for its commitment to economic development and boosting living standards – as the polls strongly show – that support is conditioned by a strong sense of environmental protectionism. Striking the right balance is not something National has yet shown itself to have a clear grasp upon.
That is where support parties like UnitedFuture, who do understand the limits and constraints, have an important role to play in the next Government to ensure we have progress, matched by environmental responsibility and sustainability.