Was it something he said?

Last updated 13:03 19/09/2013

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OPINION: A 32-page draft DOC submission on a project with significant implications for water management nationwide has been edited down to just two paragraphs.

Should we detect a really, really good piece of sub-editing, or the suppressive influence of the department's minister, Nick Smith?

The brutally abridged version of DOC's submission on the Ruataniwha Dam proposal loses a great deal of departmental concern about water pollution.

The dam proposal is a big deal. It's the focal point of the national agenda for expansion of irrigation and has certainly drawn ardent support from Federated Farmers and the Ministry of Primary Industries.

If would hardly be surprising if DOC had a different perspective, and some researched information of its own to put forward. So why didn't it?

Dr Smith has some explaining to do about his role in this. He denies any direct interference but there is still concern that he may have said no more or less than was necessary to trigger an alarming piece of self-censorship in his own department.

The scheme has been deemed a project of national significance and Dr Smith, with Environment Minister Amy Adams, has appointed an inquiry board which will report back to him.

This being the case, Dr Smith says he would have been "negligent" not to have had a discussion with his department about the need to be careful when it is making submissions in his name to such an inquiry, on an issue where he would be the final decision maker.

The crazy thing is that he wasn't saying not to make submissions; only that they should not be too strong.

So it's wimpiness or silence? That's rubbish.

Quite apart from whether there wasn't a more practical solution to such sensitivities - the business world has a "Chinese wall" model to avoid internal conflicts of interest - the greater question here is the requirement that DOC abrogate its legitimate and, we would like to think necessary, role.

Dr Smith says the department needs to focus on its core responsibilities and that it is not the primary government agency responsible for water quality. The Greens are quick to respond that the department's biodiversity role gives it status here.

Someone should send the minister a dictionary. It doesn't even need to be a weighty one - just one that clarifies the meaning of the word conservation. DOC should be able to make submissions that reflect its role to ensure as best it can, and advocate as compellingly as it can, the protection of the environment.

It is a role not to be ring-fenced for the sake of ministerial comfort levels.

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It is scarcely surprising, and certainly welcome, that the unsubmitted report leaked out and is now on the record, having been tabled in Parliament.

The Hawke's Bay Regional Council says the proposal would improve water quality. DOC's concern is that controlling only phosphate levels in the Tukituki River and allowing marked increase in nitrate levels, poses threats to water quality, habitats and fish species.

The inquiry should have a read of it.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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