A long time ago, a bloke called Stephen Rowe applied to be a press secretary for Jim Bolger, who was then Prime Minister.
Bolger attended the final job interview and asked Rowe which newspapers he read? The Herald, The Dominion, the Sunday and business weeklies, Rowe replied confidently.
“What about The Press?” asked Bolger, referring to Christchurch’s daily morning paper, still one of the jewels in the crown for the Fairfax group in New Zealand. Good point, thought Rowe.
Bolger’s basic point: don’t forget the South Island.
The current Prime Minister looks to be in danger of doing exactly that or, perhaps even more unwisely, assuming that the desire of a lot of well-connected, rural, National Party types aligns in some perfect way with the remarkably testy politics of the city once called The People’s Republic of Christchurch.
For a government that spent so long wavering on Resource Minister Gerry Brownlee’s proposals for mining on conservation land, allowing the waves of anger currently intersecting over the handling of Canterbury water looks almost careless.
Perhaps there was unjustified confidence because similar waves of anger crashed, apparently harmlessly, when it announced the Super-City plan for Auckland. The comparison would be mistaken. Auckland politics and Canterbury politics are not the same.
In the end, Aucklanders know their city should be a single entity. North Shore’s Phantom Piddler, Mayor Andrew Williams, makes the case most eloquently just by being himself.
But Christchurch is different. It’s older, it’s whiter, it’s more politically active and community-minded. It’s the sort of place that saves electricity during national savings campaigns even when it’s cold and Aucklanders are barely bothering. It has a remarkably strong volunteer and philanthropic ethic. It is cultured. There are rich people from old families who still somewhat run the place. It’s traditional, in ways both good and bad. There are a lot of Presbyterians and Anglicans.
As a result, actions such as stripping away local democracy have the capacity to become cause celebres, and the front page of The Press in recent weeks suggests the sacking of Environment Canterbury regional councillors is becoming a powerful rallying cry.
Even Alec Neill, the Bolger era MP and outgoing chair of ECan seemed pretty grumpy about it all. And everyone assumes he was well across the government’s plans for ECan after rolling the previous chair and one-time Labour Speaker, Sir Kerry Burke.
Yet with a straight face he helped carry the coffin of local democracy out of the council chamber after ECan’s last meeting this week.
Nor is there any sign that the government has organised its few, but powerful supporters.
Where are the Canterbury mayors who called for ECan’s disbanding? Having clubbed together, lobbied the government and got the report that wrote the regional council’s death warrant, there seems remarkably little effort now from the same mayors to back this politically difficult, highly arguable call that the government has made.
There is another group who stand to benefit from the latest moves, especially the amendment under Urgency and without select committee hearings of the way Water Conservation Orders apply in the Canterbury region.
As a result of this change, Fish and Game must apply to restart the WCO process it was already engaged in, while the promoters of the Hurunui irrigation scheme can continue with their resource consent applications.
It is a clear win for the irrigation lobby, which the government has been saying for months now it supports. More irrigation in Canterbury is important for agricultural productivity, and it can be achieved, with the same sorts of compromises as would allow mining on conservation lands currently protected under Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act.
This is how we catch Australia, by looking again at the national resource base and making new choices about its use. As the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research put it on the mining issue: “To do this, requires moving away from the notion that once land is acquired for conservation it is closed for all future development other than the most low-impact tourism or recreation uses that are deemed compatible with conservation.”
Exactly the same issues are playing out now on water – the first world-beating resource nominated by Finance Minister Bill English when answering questions at a pre-Budget speech for the Wellington Chamber of Commerce this week.
Another source of potential support is companies wanting water on the Canterbury Plains, where the agricultural potential is huge as long as enough water’s available.
A roll call of relevant influence gives the flavour: Jenny Shipley, Don Brash, Ruth Richardson through interests such as private dairy company Synlait, David Teece, the hugely influential and wealthy Kiwi-cum-American academic against whose land the dam on the south fork of the Hurunui River would be built. That scratches the surface.
At some stage, the Auckland-backed Mackenzie Basin shed-farming proposals will re-emerge. And in the background are Genesis, Meridian Energy and TrustPower, all of whom rely for hydro-electricity on the Waitaki and other rivers. Both Meridian and Trustpower have big combination schemes involving both hydro and storage. There is big money at stake.
But this is not their issue to fight, at least not publicly. So far the ministries of Economic Development, and Forestry and Agriculture are doing a great job unpicking aspects of the last 20 years of new environmental regulation which they’ve always felt stifled economic growth.
And this is a government that wants economic growth and is unashamed to pursue it. Its cheerleader is another kind of Cantabrian – pro-development, let’s use it, what’s wrong with a few roads anyway – in the driving seat. Minister of Economic Development Gerry Brownlee is the Member for Ilam, but he is not visible on water.
Instead, poor old Environment Minister Nick Smith is poked out on a stick in front of the TV cameras to deal with feisty 90-year-old ex-councillors threatening a rates revolt, while swallowing Cabinet decisions on Canterbury water management, which it appears he barely agrees with.
It’s clear now, from the papers released to Forest & Bird under the Official Information Act, that there was a concerted stream of advice from about September last year from MAF and MED, two power central government agencies, to find ways to wind back the ability of Water Conservation Orders to stymie new water storage and allocation projects.
The argument is there to be made, but this time, the government has moved at great speed to achieve a sea-change which could upend the way WCOs operate throughout the country.
The debate on mining conservation land, despite some shaky political management, has found that half the population is broadly supportive – a result which was probably more surprising to Resources Minister Brownlee than anyone else.
When he first let the cat out of the bag late last year, he started waiting for the sky to fall. It may have clagged in a bit, but it hasn’t fallen yet.
By contrast, the Canterbury water issue looks cloudier by the day.