When the Government acted with speed to axe Environment Canterbury (ECan) councillors after the damning Creech report, the unanswered question was who would replace them.
OPINION: The answer was revealed on Thursday and the commissioners who will govern ECan are anything but the patsies which Government critics feared. A formidable team of Cantabrians, bristling with experience and talent, has been assembled to join commission chairwoman Dame Margaret Bazley and to provide the governance that ECan and the region desperately require.
The pay which the commissioners will receive, with Bazley getting $1400 a day and other members $900 a day for their two days work a week, might astound some people, but it should not.
The level of remuneration for Bazley or David Caygill, both renowned institutional "fixers", and for the other commissioners is comparatively modest by the standards of the public and private sectors. And the total remuneration will be capped at the current level of funding for councillors.
The complaint that there is not an independent commissioner representing conservation interests is also wrongly founded. Among the commissioners there is no shortage of environmental credentials. Former businessman Rex Williams helped found the Water Rights Trust and Professor Peter Skelton was an Environment Court judge. Past Federated Farmers president Tom Lambie might be regarded as pro-irrigation but he also practises organic dairying, while Donald Couch will bring Ngai Tahu's concern for the environment to the commission.
The commissioners do lack substantial recent experience in local government, aside from Williams' chairmanship of a district health board. But if knowledge of local government law can not be found within ECan, the commission can get outside advice.
It cannot be denied that sacking regional councillors is a drastic step and an erosion of democracy, but this is not Fiji, where all vestiges have been removed. Those who made, or abetted, the decision on ECan are still accountable to voters.
Later this year they can signal their displeasure by voting against their local mayor. All regional mayors signed the letter highly critical of ECan which helped trigger the insertion of commissioners. This issue could be important in determining whether Christchurch's Bob Parker proves to be a one-term mayor. And next year those who opposed the dumping of regional councillors can show their anger by voting against National and ACT New Zealand, the two parties whose ministers made the decision.
The commissioners' terms of reference include building effective and long-term relationships with territorial authorities. It is not yet clear how this will be achieved but closer relationships are essential after years of bitter fighting between the two tiers of local government. The commissioners must also work with the Environmental Protection Authority to streamline planning on nationally significant projects.
Another priority must be transparency in decision-making, especially as the commissioners have been given new powers to fast-track regional plans and to determine water conservation orders, both without recourse to the Environment Court. Undoubtedly, the commissioners will be mindful of the need to be seen to be using these extraordinary powers wisely, and having a former court judge in their midst will assist this. So too, the proposed independent environmental monitoring should encourage sound decisions.
The assurance that ECan meetings will still be held in public is welcome in this regard. But the commissioners must also ensure that their decisions are accompanied by detailed explanations of their reasoning. It will not do to release a paucity of information and force the public and the news media to drag the full story out through the Official Information Act. With a strong sense of accountability, finally ECan should cease to be the poor relation of Canterbury local government.
- The Press