– 7 Councillors write a letter, excluding the other 5 (including the chair) and our treaty partner, Kāi tahu. The letter is read out on radio and otherwise distributed. Here’s the story.
Trying to sort out water planning has blasted open a division between the elected members of the council. This culminated on March 25 in a surprise letter from 7 councillors being sent to the chair and the other councillors before being made public on the morning of the 26th.
In early March, Council agreed (narrowly) to notify plan change 7, the latest plan change in an attempt to resolve the issues of deemed permits running out in 2021 and a framework unfit for dealing with those and other expiring and new water permits. You can explore that background in an earlier blog.
Submissions to this plan change were to close on Friday April 17 at the time the letter was written. The letter seeks that ORC stop all consultation and withdraw this plan change because of the circumstances of COVID-19. It also calls for us to review the logic and fundamentals of plan change 8 (ready for notification, but not yet signed off by the council) and of the 20/21 Annual Plan which is also out for consultation right now – Submissions close Friday, April 24.
I think the letter uses a narrative of fear to promote a kneejerk reaction. That sort of reaction in my view is unnecessary and unhelpful and in this case serves to try and get public support for the ORC taking its eye off the environmental ball. Rather than getting into a pointless argument about our codes of conduct or poor governance, I decided to try and respond to each point raised in the letter.
To test my own thinking and responses, I got some help. I called our treaty partner representative, Kāi Tahu’s Ed Ellison at Aukaha, because he too had been left out of this discussion, then I called an environmental scientist based in Southland and a farmer friend from Otago. Ed is a full voting member of the ORC’s Policy Committee so his view is vital in our work. He has kindly allowed me to write up my notes from our conversation and include them at the bottom of this post. His words are wise, timeless and meaningful. I also include a wider, contextual reading list.
The letter was signed by Michael Laws, Hilary Calvert, Gary Kelliher, Carmen Hope, Andrew Noone, Kevin Malcolm and Kate Wilson. It was read out by Michael Laws on Radio Central on the morning of March 26 after being sent to the chair and non-included councillors late arvo on the 25th. It was in the hands of the ODT likely later that day. You can read a confused and missing the point ODT article here. Dealing with water planning has been contentious as we try and finally sort out the issue of water permits – a job that ORC has failed to complete in the 30 year time frame they’ve had to complete it – largely because agreement between public and private interests has not been able to be reached. The actions of the 7 in signing and sending this letter has brought to a head a rift, basically between the irrigators (at least as representatives) and the others, and solidified a disruptive air of mistrust at the Council. The ‘why’ of their approach is unknown. Was it a cynical desire to disrupt planning processes for narrow political reasons? Or do they truly feel that they are powerless to get their perspective across in the democratic process? In a healthy Council and under good governance process, any concerns about COVID-19 and its impact on our work would have come to the table for discussion. We would have gone back to our first principles and the primary outcomes – those that guide every decision we make – and decide whether, in our forever-changed world, those principles and outcomes were still valid. In considering the letter the place to start is our principles and outcomes. What we are here to actually do.
These from our Regional Plan (only partially operative):
Resource management in Otago is integrated
Kāi Tahu values, and interests are recognised and kaitiakitaka is expressed
Otago has high quality natural resources and ecosystems
Communities in Otago are resilient, safe and healthy
People are able to use and enjoy our natural and built environment
These are broad and have a lot of scope for interpretation. My interpretation is that my job as Councillor is, first and foremost, to decide policies, in partnership with Kāi Tahu, and informed by our expert staff, that protect our environment. In my view, if we do that all other outcomes will follow and we will be able to maintain high quality ecosytems and resilient communities for now and into the future. The personal view I bring to this table looks for an even loftier outcome. I want regenerative ecosystems that will support better ways of production and stronger communities.
The original letter is in black type. I’ve split it into the constituent parts. My comments are displayed in italics. There is an update – Our CEO Sarah Gardner under delegated authority, has extended the consultation time to May 4.
26 March 2020
Dear Chairperson Marian
Withdrawal/Suspension of ORC Plans
Given the current COVID-19 emergency and its associated economic, social and political effects, we strongly believe that the Otago Regional Council needs to re-evaluate its policy and financial priorities for the next 12 months.
This assumes that the COVID-19 emergency would somehow affect our environmental and community outcomes and so we should re-evealuate policy and financial priorities. I accept that it’s always good practice to revisit principles, especially when the world has cha nged so radically since they were first accepted. A discussion around the table to see if they needed changing in response to this emergency is reasonable. Outcome four: 4. Communities in Otago are resilient, safe and healthy; seems to be the one that might need the most consideration – how do we ensure resilient, safe and healthy communities in the current environment?
We do so in the knowledge that the tourism economy in New Zealand has collapsed and that there will be no short-term recovery. The consequences will be particularly severe for the Otago region, especially the Dunstan districts. New Zealand’s primary export earner has effectively ceased.
It won’t be just the tourism economy! No sector will be unscathed. Threats and opportunities will present themselves in every sector. This will have severe impact on our entire fiscal system, distribution and supply systems and our communities. But COVID-19 will have no bearing on the environmental imperatives of our work or any of the outcomes other than outcome 4 as above.
We believe that any national or regional recovery will be based upon the agrarian economy and the production of food.
Our agrarian economy has a great opportunity here. But again, this has no bearing on the outcomes we seek except to reinforce their importance. Points worth discussing:
* How are our supply chains in and out impacted during and after this crisis? * Do we return to a new version of business as usual, or will a post COVID-19 world demand a different approach? For example, could our markets become more conscious of the food they eat and therefore more questioning of production methods and environmental impacts? Are our environmental outcomes high enough if this could be the case? * Is it possible that the biggest opportunity in a post COVID-19 world is to recognise how weak our global system is right now? If it is, the question would be; what’s our part in the redesign?
By circumstance, the Otago Regional Council is currently consulting on Plan Change 7 (deemed permits) and is also progressing an Omnibus Plan Change, and a review of the Regional Policy Statement (RPS). The latter has been suspended, we understand, until the current COVID-19 emergency has passed.
It is our view that all consultation upon Plan Change 7 should be halted, and that the plan should be entirely withdrawn. Similarly, we need to review the fundamentals and logic that led to the Omnibus Plan Change and the RPS.
COVID-19 is undeniably a massive global event. But it is an event, the mountains, air, rivers, seas, forests, soils will endure and continue to degrade if we fail to do our work. To impede the progress we have made towards our outcomes would be a terrible step backwards. Our only job in this scenario is to test that our outcomes remain valid and to stand firm in our progress. It’s prudent to put the principles of Omnibus Plan Change to the test. Plan Change 7 is already notified and any change to that will come through the legal process it is now in. If the principles of the other documents (or indeed PC 7) need to allow for more agriculture, and therefore less environmental protection, let’s have that discussion, in the case of PC7, that discussion will come through the process, as it should. If we undertook such a suggestion (legally suspect so unlikely), a likely outcome would be to lower environmental outcomes to boost the economy. In my view this is a dangerous way forward and classic short term thinking causing long term cost. I see no reason to halt consultation on PC 7. People are perfectly capable of making submissions on how the plan should be altered if they think it should be in response to COVID-19 or anything else. If the principles and outcomes need retesting, that will happen within the process. Retesting the principles and outcomes of our organisation, within a strategy meeting setting (so we ensure our Kāi Tahu partners are at the table), is a good idea.
There are also ‘natural justice’ and social equity considerations that should accompany any discussion on the progress, or otherwise, of any ORC plan changes.
There is no explanation of what natural justice or social equity considerations there are to accompany the discussion here. The ability for people to have their say on the issues has not changed. Only the ability to meet in person has. No fundamental principles have been changed by COVID-19. We need to be resilient and flexible in how we consult, as do our constituents. Our phone numbers and email addresses are all available on the ORC website if people find other forms of consultation difficult.
We also wish to flag that the draft Annual Plan 2020/21 and its assumptions, including its financing, also requires immediate review. The Otago Regional Council needs to immediately withdraw the draft Annual Plan from consultation, to better consider a plan that meets our region’s current and likely needs.
Again, I don’t see how the assumptions of that plan have changed and they’re not outlined in the letter. I understand that people’s ability to absorb a 9% rate rise may be compromised. Let’s address that. The rises in rates are mostly to pay for science, data and better review of information. We have already agreed on the importance of this work and it may well be that it could attract government funding through COVID recovery programmes. Other vulnerable areas would be on climate action such as transport mode shift. We need now more than ever to keep moving forward on these programmes. The plan is out for consultation, people will make their own decisions and submissions and we will listen. If we need to find alternative means of funding, we will. Science, data, commitment to climate action, these are the things that will lead us out of our predicament. Compromising principles and outcomes and cutting costs will not.
We are aware of the advice from Chief Executive Sarah Gardner that the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) and relevant departments will continue to progress “RM Reform and the Freshwater Package”.
We consider that the Otago Regional Council should discuss whether we wish to make fresh submissions to central government, including the Minister for the Environment, in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency and its consequences upon our region and communities.
These submissions were based in principles and outcomes and unless those have changed, there is no reason to revisit. Our job is as kiatiaki of our environment, let’s get on and do our job.
If you require us to frame the suitable Notices of Motion for the Otago Regional Council’s formal discussion of the plan withdrawals and policy reconsiderations, please advise.
Cr Hilary Calvert Cr Carmen Hope Cr Gary Kelliher Cr Michael Laws Cr Kevin Malcolm Cr Andrew Noone Cr Kate Wilson
Notes from my discussion with Edward Ellison (Aukura – Kāi Tahu and member of ORC Strategy Committee)
If ORC is serious about its role, it won’t look to stop, or slow down process, but would look at finding government support (COVID funding) to help clean up its act.
ORC over the past 30 years has had every opportunity to put good process in place, but has failed to do so. The politics around the issue have been self-serving and narrow. It would be a shame to rock the boat and divert the progress that has been made.
There is a nervousness among farmers about what’s coming out of Wellington. But this is overdue and won’t change with government. It must be addressed, but is a balancing act.
People don’t want to give up their historic rights to use all the water they want (deemed permit paper allocations).
Catchment groups have managed the waterways but they’re essentially managing a resource through private interests when the duty of guardianship lies with the public. This isn’t right. Catchment groups have managed this, but they’re managing a public resource through private interests. Individuals and people on committees working out there are working within their own frameworks, that’s not a suitable way to go forward. Water is a public resource with a public duty of guardianship. It’s bigger and broader than farmers managing their catchments.
This lobby (the Seven) is doing its damnedest to divert the course of justice. It’s about addressing historic rights with public and tangata whenua involvement.
ORC is scrambling because it hasn’t been able to sort this public/private issue.
ORC mustn’t knee jerk because of COVID-19.
Change is always difficult. It causes stress. Change in Otago has been accelerated. There will be an economic downturn and government bailouts need to look at this as well. At the end of the day quality products from a quality environment is a very good place to sit.