Former environment Minister Nick Smith provided $180,000 for meetings to resolve disputes over the Mackenzie Basin, despite officials advising it was expensive and unlikely to work.
Smith resigned from Cabinet this year over scandals at ACC, and the Sunday Star-Times has learned ministry chief executive Paul Reynolds has met new minister Amy Adams over concerns about the funding applications.
The Mackenzie Sustainable Futures Trust, set up to mediate between farmers and environmentalists clashing over projects in the Mackenzie Basin and Waitaki Valley, was chaired by National MP Jacqui Dean.
And Ecologic, a firm run by Smith's friend Guy Salmon, received about $87,000 in consultancy fees from the "collaborative process", documents released under the Official Information Act show.
Meetings cost around $25,000 each, of which around $18,000 a time went to Ecologic.
Labour environment spokesman Grant Robertson said the documents showed: "Money for mates and special treatment."
The initiative was announced at National's BlueGreens conference last year. Smith had agreed to it at a symposium in Twizel a month after meeting lobbyist and former MP Doug Woolerton, who was working for Southdown Holdings. The company, since folded, was interested in cubicle dairying.
Smith awarded $100,000 to "kick-start" the collaborative process, but ministry officials would not pay another $200,000 this year, saying the application lacked evidence, was unclear, had high cost and "won't necessarily result in an agreed and durable outcome".
But after a meeting in February with Smith, and calls with Dean, officials agreed to allocate $80,000 more, funding Robertson called "a total saga", and "odd". "This is why ministers baselining pet projects is dangerous."
He said Dean was "trampling" over guidelines for officials' contact with MPs. "She has merged her role as an MP with being the trust chair, and I'm concerned about blurring the boundaries.
There were emails from officials saying you need to describe what you are doing, do this better, asking what are the milestones. It's clear they were desperately backfilling because the decision had been made to give the money."
But Smith said the ministry had refused funding for the Land and Water Forum, which also brings together groups to work on policy. "Our policy was to move away from a divisive approach through the courts. It's appropriate for a minister to intervene and say, ‘no, we want a new approach'."
He said the starting point for the initiative was his January 2010 decision to call in consents for an intensive dairy farm. The Environmental Defence Society then called for a collaborative process. Salmon was a "professional" friend, and he saw no problems with his fees.
Salmon said the fees included travel, accommodation, research and preparation for the meetings. Once funding was turned down he understood Smith had said he wanted the money found. "It was perhaps not strictly following normal procedure, in that he said, ‘I want to have this funded'."
Dean said she was not paid for her trust work, and her husband's law firm did pro bono work. "It's one of the things a good MP should do. I was the chair of five trustees. My role was to gather funding for the trust."
She said Salmon was a friend to both her and Smith. She approached him because he "was already doing the work.
What he did was to try and shepherd 24 different parties around a table. So he spent . . . an awful lot of time talking to people to keep the process going. Time and money well-spent."
LABOUR HITS AT EX MINISTER'S FAILED "PET PROJECT"
The following questions about the Mackenzie Sustainable Futures Trust were put to the Environment Ministry:
Funding of $100,000 seems to have come from a promise made by Nick Smith. Is this usual? How does it compare with other awards?
The application for $200,000 was turned down with some robust reasoning, why was that process not applied to the initial $100,000? There were problems paying the money because the trust was not a legal entity.
To sort this out required a "special favour". Again, is this usual? MP Jacqui Dean was in direct and regular contact with officials.
Is that level of contact normal with other applicants? Officials say they spent 200 hours between March and October 2011 on this, how does that compare with other applications?
Is the ministry satisfied this application was treated in the same manner as others, and that all processes were followed? What level of contact came from the minister's office?
Can you confirm chief executive Paul Reynolds met new minister Amy Adams to raise concerns about this process?
It replied, in the name of Deputy Secretary Andrew Crisp: Bringing about collaboration between different interest groups is a good way to make progress on environmental issues. The Land and Water Forum is a great example.
The then minister, Nick Smith, saw the Mackenzie collaborative process as a way to make progress on complex environment issues.
Smith asked the ministry to try to find a way to help the process get started, in order to recognise the willingness of different groups in the Mackenzie Basin and Waitaki Valley to collaborate.
The ministry funded the initial work of the Mackenzie Sustainable Futures Trust from its baseline.
The trust subsequently applied to the Community Environment Fund but was not successful. The ministry continued to fund the trust's activities from its baseline.
The amount of money the trust has received from the ministry is lower than planned because the collaborative process the trust ran was different to what was first proposed.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Rate the Government's progress around drinking laws:Related story: New drinking law a vital step