Interference over river smells bad

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 05:00 29/09/2013

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OPINION: You could get tied in knots trying to explain the Ruataniwha Dam mini-scandal enveloping Conservation Minister Nick Smith.

Smith certainly has, and it has left a pong as pungent as a river polluted with cow excrement.

What it boils down to is the perception of political influence. The Department of Conservation prepared a submission to an Environmental Protection Agency Board of Inquiry examining the proposed irrigation dam. They concluded it was "risky", "untested" "inappropriate" and could pollute the Tukituki and Waipawa Rivers.

Two days after Smith was told about the proposal it was withdrawn and replaced with a diluted, two-paragraph submission. Smith has repeatedly insisted he learned about the existence of the report only last week, from a radio bulletin.

Documents later surfaced to show he had been briefed and had expressed concerns. Smith's explanation for this inconsistency is that he saw only the final copy, not the original 32-page draft. He was, to use his own words, dancing on the head of a pin.

The problem with his account is that it is evident he was told enough about the tenor of the report to express concerns and ask to see it.

Smith has strenuously denied he leaned on DOC. However, the perception that is left is that his officials were so worried about his reaction, that they scrapped the whole thing and went with a safer option. It speaks to an apparent trend of ministers taking care not to record anything but verbally putting pressure on their departments or ministries.

Smith has also made some interesting comments about what he believes DOC's role is. He revealed in Parliament he had a conversation with the department's director- general when he first took up the portfolio this year and indicated it should exercise caution when making submissions to boards of inquiry. He also made it clear that he believes water quality is not within DOC's scope, which should be the protection of species. If they could, I'm sure the fish of the Tukituki would disagree.

It is only a few months since Smith returned to Cabinet. Last year he was forced to resign because he used ACC ministerial stationery to advocate for his friend and claimant Bronwyn Pullar.

The Sunday Star-Times also revealed last year that Smith overrode the advice of environment ministry officials and awarded a $185,000 grant to a project, $87,000 of which was swallowed up in consultancy fees for a company run by his friend. Three years ago he fired a board of elected councillors at Environment Canterbury, over water- management issues.

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It all points to a disturbing track record of Smith overstepping the boundaries of public service neutrality. However, unlike the ACC conflict of interest, this episode is unlikely to spell the end of Smith's ministerial career. The matter is too complicated and bureaucratic to have much resonance outside of the public service. Letting him go would be an admission Prime Minister John Key made a mistake in restoring him to Cabinet, so his position would need to be untenable.

His blue-green credentials (although somewhat stretched at present) are valuable to the government, witnessed by his popular decision to reject a tunnel through Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks. And he is a talented and energetic minister - even though that enthusiasm, at times, leads him to dangerously overstep the mark.

- Sunday Star Times

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