Editorial: Watershed decision

Last updated 05:00 05/11/2012

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OPINION: It probably rates as one of the most unsurprising revelations of the year, that the shelving of Environment Canterbury elections is partly all about the region's water.

The motivations behind the National Government's hamstringing of a return to democracy for the regional council have slowly been trickling out, rather like the last channel of water in a dried-up Canterbury stream bed in mid-summer.

There was an initial gush of basic information from Environment Minister Amy Adams and Local Government Minister David Carter in their September announcement of a further delay in regional council elections until 2016, but then the flow was staunched.

Official Information Act requests by The Press since have provided some inklings of the thinking behind the decision that broke earlier Government promises and outraged many across the region. Now, the most recent information to come out has revealed irrigation and the nationwide economic benefits it is touted to bring were a significant factor in the Government wanting to retain control of Environment Canterbury through its appointed commissioners.

That won't come as any great bombshell to many Cantabrians, given this Government's single-minded focus on the economic and only superficial commitment to policies designed to protect the environment.

Figures in the official papers released to this newspaper show the potential bonanza to the country of maximising the amount of irrigated land on the Canterbury Plains could be about $5 billion.

A comprehensive irrigation network across 850,000 hectares of the plains is possible during the next 50 years under the Canterbury Water Management Strategy. The Government papers quantify that with irrigation, the value of Canterbury farmland could skyrocket from $1000 per hectare to $7000 per hectare.

But, they add, in a frisson of alarm as if to justify the move on ECan, all that could be jeopardised unless the regional council is "stable, effective and efficient". The obvious implication is that a council elected by Cantabrians will not do what the Government wants it to do.

This is another example of a post-quake arrogance that has crept into the way some of our Cabinet ministers are operating. The public of Canterbury should not have to go through Official Information Act channels to get Adams and Carter to tell them what is going on in their own region. As with Finance Minister Bill English's extraordinary comments about the Christchurch City Council's finances, it is another example of being told something but given no evidence to back it up.

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Some are asking what the Government has done for the environment since its election in 2008. That is a good question. Other than joint initiatives with the Green Party on home insulation, pest control and cycleways, it is hard to think of any significant policy announcement.

Last week Adams admitted that the five-yearly State of the Environment report had been scrapped. Instead it is being replaced by ad hoc report cards.

Rural Canterbury should not be viewed as a huge dairy farm, a cash cow for the country. If this is the Government's vision, it needs to be clearly and openly stated. ECan is consulting widely throughout the region through water forums on its water strategy, but Cantabrians should also be given the chance to vote on the issue.

- The Press

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