Election 2017: Chowder, cow-poo and Nick Smith
Shrimps and mussels, slivers of white fish, rich thick sauce, a generous sprinkling of fragrant herbs, some chunks of crusty bread.
There I was, eating seafood chowder at Bacco in Trafalgar Street.
It was delicious, but better still, it was free.
For the third time in a couple of months, I was breaking bread with a politician. It was, if I do say so myself, a genius idea.
* Election 2017: A Green politician at my table
* NZ Election 2017: Lunching with Labour
* I've never seen Nick Smith swimming
* Artist pooh-poohs Nick Smith
* Canterbury artist Sam Mahon takes on Nick Smith again
After all, there's a tiny window once every three years when our politicians will do almost anything to get us to listen to them, including coughing up for a hungry journalist's kai.
So I put the word out. Buy me lunch and I will listen, then write about our conversation afterwards.
First, I shared a lump of Tozzetti's salmon quiche with Greens candidates Matt Lawrey and Chloe Swarbrick for a story in the Sunday Star Times. They were likeable, articulate, earnest, and brought the food around in a recyclable brown paper bag.
A few weeks later, Labour's Rachel Boyack rocked around to my house with a sausage roll from a bakery in Stoke. While she talked social justice and affordable housing, I made a pig of myself and took notes.
And then, out of the blue, I got a text from local National MP, Nick Smith.
He noted that I had given his water quality proposals "a couple of good, hard whacks" in the press.
"I genuinely feel you have wrong end of stick," he wrote, suggesting we meet up so he could explain his policy. He might even buy me a pie.
But why settle for a pie when someone else is paying? We met in a restaurant instead.
I thought- should I turn up wearing an overcoat, a hat, a false beard? Given that I'm a pinko liberal of long standing, was some sort of disguise appropriate? What if some of my leftie friends saw me, fraternising with the enemy?
But the lead-up to a general election is surely a time to enter into political conversations with good grace and a relatively open mind, so I did just that.
I admitted I'd been disappointed with the Nats' water policies, largely formulated by Smith as Minister for The Environment. They seemed to reclassify polluted waterways previously declared merely "wadeable" as suddenly "swimmable"
Between mouthfuls of chowder, Smith put his case. He combed through the entire Water Quality Discussion Document, explaining key points, drawing little graphs, explaining his methodology.
He explained that a lot of document's "worst case scenarios" concerned the kind of effluent runoff that commonly occurred after a storm. I looked down at my seafood chowder, which had suddenly lost much of its appeal.
Smith himself was an enthusiastic river swimmer, he said. "I love swimming in the Lee. I must've been up there with my family a thousand times or more."
His document was perhaps "a little over-complicated", he admitted, but his intentions were clear. He wanted to make "more New Zealand rivers swimmable, more often."
"If you could safely swim in the Maitai 300 times per year before, I want it to go up to, say, 340 times. But you still shouldn't swim after heavy rain or you might get sick."
Smith used a mythical blind man as a handy example.
"I want to know- how safe is each waterway? If I'm a blind man and can't see that it's all murky and in flood, and I decide to go for a swim every single day of the year up the Maitai at Sunday Hole, what's my chance of getting sick?"
Yes, OK, fair enough. But if you wanted the public to realise that one swimmer in every 20 might get sick swimming in a particular waterway, why not give people a memorable image, rather than all these graphs and pie charts?
Smith could say- Imagine if the entire National cabinet went swimming just after a storm, and in our heads we would picture Gerry Brownlee in his Speedos.
We would imagine Bill English splashing Paula Bennett in the shallows while Anne Tolley skipped stones and Simon Bridges floated on a lilo nearby. And look, over there, chundering behind that flax bush- it's Steven Joyce!
"Yes, OK, you're right," said Smith. "If I take my entire cabinet down for a swim, out of those 20 people, one of us will get sick. That is true, if that river's been swollen by heavy rain. But my point is, if we all went down for a dip throughout the rest of the year, the chances of getting sick are far lower. And after a flood, it's higher, so three cabinet ministers might get sick."
I put it to Smith that it might be very good news for Labour and The Greens if the National cabinet took up extreme river swimming.
"Yeah. If we went swimming on flood days, pollution would be the least of our worries. We'd all drown!"
Smith's document was also widely criticised for going too easy on the pollution caused by dairy farmers. This was unfair, he said.
"For example, the worst threat to water quality here in Nelson isn't farmers- it's old sewerage pipes that leak."
He told of some water monitoring that was done when water quality breached health guidelines in the lower Maitai.
"They did DNA testing on the E Coli bacteria and found it was from humans rather than cows. It ended up being just two toilets in the Nelson library that had been discharging into the stormwater instead of the sewerage system. Just two dunnies! People don't realise how little crap it takes to hugely pollute something."
Yes, but it takes a lot more to make a work of art. What did Smith think of Canterbury artist Sam Mahon, a clean water activist so outraged by the Minister's perceived softness on intensive dairy farming, he made a Nick Smith sculpture from cow-poo?
"I met that guy! He came to see me, and was nice enough to my face. But you never know who's going to have a go at you. You might be planning to go away and make a s..t sculpture of me as well!"
No, I said. I'm just here for the free lunch. I'm a very busy man, and besides, it would take me far too long to collect enough s..t.
And to his credit, Nick Smith slapped his leg and laughed long and hard at that, then he went up and paid our bill. Out on the street, we shook hands, and I asked him in parting how he thought his team would do on September 23rd.
"Elections are always exhilarating, and with Jacinda now leading Labour, it's game on. We have a saying in politics: friends come and go, but enemies accumulate. People don't necessarily remember all the good things you've done, but every decision you make has the potential to annoy someone, and at election time, those people want to settle the score. When you've been doing this for 26 years like I have, there's a fair few of them, too. But I'm optimistic. We'll see."