Time to look deeper into what others just accept- Rachel Stewart

Local body elections are once again upon us. My how time flies – even when you’re not having fun.

District councils deal with the general tedium of sewage, roads, dog control, street lighting, and other such wonders of mankind. As important as all of that undoubtedly is, I reckon the real action, and the biggest chance for influencing any meaningful change, lies within regional councils.

With issues such as water quality, air pollution, pest eradication, and petrochem consenting and oversight, therein must lay the path to ecological glory if one wants to walk it.

I’ve had the dubious pleasure of paying rates to two regional councils – Taranaki and Manawatu/Whanganui (Horizons) – and, as any good ratepayer should, I have paid attention to their respective performances.

While there are similarities between them they are also polar opposites in one very profound way. This difference will have impacts on their respective regions for decades. It has made for much bad policy and a sick culture.

Put simply, Taranaki effectively has no governance and Horizons has way too much.

Certain staff at the Taranaki Regional Council openly joke about how one never leaves any really important decisions to elected people, and they make good on it. You just have to sit through any of their meetings, or read the minutes, to see that their governance role is kept to a minimum.

There is barely any discussion, and if there is it is more a mutual backslapping lovefest rather than anything resembling a searching, genuine question.

Dissent is so rare that, if it were to happen, it would be remembered for years.

With predominantly National party stalwarts and farmers around the table, economic development over the environment is a given. Staff put to the council what they need and it’s rubberstamped.


Now, you could argue that’s because it’s a well-oiled machine.

Or you could say that the councillors just don’t possess the intellectual skills or political inclination to go against a CEO of nearly 30 years standing, or his loyal gatekeepers.

Horizons has the opposite problem. Their governance, in the main, has spent the better part of six years fighting against their staff.

Not fundamentally grasping the line between staff and governance they have pushed and pulled every which way to try and get what they want, or not, as the case may be.

Again, in the main, the council table has been dominated by farmers and those of a certain blue political hue. At least, unlike TRC, they’ve realised they have control, but that’s often come at a cost to both the environment and many Horizons staff. The controversial One Plan has been the biggest obstacle.

Both councils’ individual operating styles are extremely dysfunctional.

Economic considerations are drowning out the environmental ones all too often. As ratepayers we find ourselves in a new era of impartial science being ignored, denied and disregarded.

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman just released a report on the problem. It’s called The Role of Evidence in Policy Formation where he notes that policy decisions in New Zealand’s government departments are extremely variable, and often deaf to sound scientific data.

I know, I know. This from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser seems a bit ironic considering Key acts like he doesn’t exactly have him on direct dial. Which makes it even more pertinent in my view.

The PM won’t like it, and neither will the regional councils who tend to actively engage in biased and selective “science” to suit their policy agendas.

Before you vote, and you know you should, let me say that change for change’s sake is never a good thing. However, if you want more robust science, or even just a little bit of questioning of your regional council’s decision-making, then you know you should vote for new, but effective, blood.

New Plymouth has the option of schoolteacher and fracktivist Sarah Roberts.

With an extensive background in research and auditing she is capable of looking deeper into what others just accept.

As one of five selected in 2012 for Taranaki Person of the Year she’s well known and highly regarded by many. My money’s on her getting a well-deserved seat at TRC’s table.

Palmerston North has ex- Horizons staff member Greg Carlyon. He was its regional planning and regulatory group manager up until 2011.

He resigned after councillors refused to talk about his report into Palmerston North City Council’s lack of adherence to the rules in discharging treated wastewater into the Manawatu River. However, his frustration with the councillors over freshwater issues had clearly been building for some time.

They lost a good man, but I predict they’ll soon be getting him back in a different form. As he’s a firm believer in evidence-based policy, that’s got to be a good thing.

So what’ll it be, folks? More of the same?