How ECan fell to the irrigators

Sir Kerry Burke asks why Canterbury's democracy was destroyed.

The Government's 2010 dismissal of the elected Environment Canterbury (ECan) was based on two false premises:

1) That ECan was dysfunctional. This was rejected by the performance assessment of ECan known as the Creech Inquiry commissioned in 2009.

2) That ECan had failed to plan for water. The water plan was proposed in 2004. It is the current operative plan.

The truth, lately revealed in The Press, was about government fears that irrigation might be affected by a democratic election.

Mayoral duplicity also played a strong supporting role.

So, why was water such a factor in the Government's fear of the 2010 and now the 2013 ECan elections? What was the real agenda?

In 2007, four new ECan councillors were elected after campaigning on water issues, shocking the political establishment and planting water firmly within regional politics.

David Carter was one of those worried, making his displeasure known to me about ECan's 2009 proposal to change the Waimakariri River Plan. Perhaps he saw it as a harbinger of a more environmentally-friendly future elected ECan council?

As a new minister Carter told irrigators in Christchurch in December 2008 that "the one thing you need to understand is that you must take the urban community with you".

By April 2010, however, Carter's view had changed completely, threatening all regional councils at the Irrigation NZ Conference: "We had to act [re ECan] because the situation was untenable if we are to seriously make progress in delivering this irrigation. I would have thought what happened recently [re ECan] would be a signal to all regional councillors to work a bit more constructively with their farmer stakeholders."

Irrigation for farmers now took precedence over winning urban support. Democratic ECan was in the way and population trends would inevitably give urban representatives increasing influence over natural resources policy.

The Creech Review team member who interviewed me in late 2009 put his pen down mid- discussion and said: "You know, representation is the key to all of this", a remarkable but accurate observation. Representation translates inexorably into influence in planning and decision-making.

The 2001 electoral law changes threatened an end to ECan's longstanding rural gerrymander. Canterbury's mayors attacked ECan for applying the law in its representation review because it would have increased Christchurch's voice.

The mayors were humiliated at the Local Government Commission Hearing in 2007, one threatening, presciently perhaps, that if their views weren't upheld he wouldn't rule out changes to Canterbury's local government arrangements.

The subsequent boundary changes, though minor, signalled an end to mayoral diktat with regard to ECan. The precedent had been established. It became a big driver in mayoral lobbying to destroy the elected ECan.

Between the water chapters being proposed in 2004 and becoming operative in 2010 ECan had to manage a "gold rush" of consent applications, exacerbated by the first-in, first-served RMA priority system.

Pleas to ministers (Trevor Mallard and Nick Smith) to give ECan powers to impose targeted moratoria (later granted by Smith to the appointed commissioners) were rejected, denying ECan a key tool to do the job, for which Smith then blamed it.

Instead, ECan set in place a white, yellow and red zoning system, depending on the sustainable amount of water remaining, if any.

"Red Zones" were where water was already fully allocated but the Environment Court and/or Hearing Panels still gave away water in those zones against ECan's wishes.

The "rush" also meant that consent applications took longer to process, invariably blamed by over-stretched consultants on ECan. Internal changes better managed the flood of consents but Smith still had a field day in 2009 attacking the now-remedied timeline failures.

At National's 2009 conference there was much talk about commissioners being appointed to replace councillors. Wellington gossip had ministers canvassing for names of appointees. No matter what ECan did, it seemed that the course had been set.

Soon after National's conference Mark Oldfield, an irrigating ECan councillor, moved for my replacement as chairman. He was supported by the other three irrigating ECan councillors, all later found by the auditor- general to have breached the conflict of interest law.

The leadership coup was backed by members of the group called the Mayoral Forum. Its members successfully lobbied ECan waverers, opening the way for the destruction of ECan's democracy.

Canterbury's mayors never seemed to accept that the Regional Council and its elected members had a clear and separate democratic mandate, different from theirs.

They simply did not like having an over-arching, elected regulatory authority that they could not control.

This phenomenon is not unique to Canterbury.

Despite splendid co-operation producing outstanding regional successes such as the Greater Christchurch Urban Development Strategy (UDS) and the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (CWMS), the mayors, led by Christchurch's Bob Parker and Timaru's Janie Annear, joined in the attack on the elected ECan.

Their behaviour was duplicitous. They had all signed the Triennial Agreement's "no surprises" clause requiring inter- council issues to be discussed and resolved rather than be the subject of public disagreement. Every Canterbury mayor dishonoured that agreement.

ECan's new leadership, dependent on the very people who wanted to destroy it, provided almost no defence of the elected council.

Worse, chairman Alec Neill publicly embraced his appointed successor, collaborating with the incoming commissioners. Neill and Mark Oldfield later received government appointments.

ECan needed a Churchill but got the appeasement of Chamberlain. It was (and still is) left to the community to protest about the loss of democratic accountability for ECan's decisions.

The elected Environment Canterbury council did not deserve this treatment. It was a functional council that led New Zealand in key regional council responsibilities - notably its plan for improving air quality and in the development of collaborative strategies for urban growth in Greater Christchurch and for regional water management.

But New Zealand leadership in those areas wasn't enough to save it.

The Government, worried by the influence of urban voters on water policy, decided to dismiss the elected ECan council. It fabricated the case. It still does.

The mayors cheered from the sidelines, their councils and electors largely ignorant of their leaders' plotting.

Democracy should be the fundamental underpinning of the relationship between the governors and the governed, providing the accountability of those who spend the taxes to those who pay them.

Democracy should never be a matter of convenience subject to such casual dismissal as occurred in Canterbury. ECan's treatment shames New Zealand's otherwise proud democratic tradition.

Sir Kerry Burke is a former minister of immigration and employment who was Speaker of the House of Representatives between 1987 and 1990. He was ECan's chairman between 2004 and 2009.

The Press