Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment
Hon GERRY BROWNLEE (Leader of the House)
: I move,
That the House recommend to the Governor-General that, pursuant to section 4 of the Environment Act 1986, Dr Janice Claire Wright be appointed as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is an Officer of Parliament, and I am pleased to note that Dr Wright was supported by all parties in this House for her reappointment.
Dr Wright is the third commissioner. She began her 5-year term in March of 2007, following a career as an independent policy economic consultant. Dr Wright has a multidisciplinary background, with a physics degree from Canterbury, a Master’s degree in energy and resources from Berkeley in California, and a PhD in public policy from Harvard. Before her current role, Dr Wright worked as an independent policy consultant for many different Government agencies and as a member of various Crown entities’ boards.
The functions and powers of the commissioner are defined by the Environment Act 1986. The commissioner has wide powers to investigate and report on any matter—
The ASSISTANT SPEAKER (H V Ross Robertson): Order! Would members leaving the Chamber—
Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: —where in her opinion the environment may be, or has been, adversely affected. Parliament or any parliamentary select committee may also ask her to report on environmental matters.
Dr Wright has recently described the main work of the commissioner as being investigations that result in reports being tabled in the House and providing advice to select committees. In my time as a Minister, Dr Wright has reported on a number of issues that related to portfolios that I held. I think it would be fair for me to say that the commissioner’s intention to always produce well-reasoned and pragmatic reports was certainly seen on those occasions, even though I may have had some disagreement with them. I think she has been a great advocate for the environment in her role since 2007. The Government supports the commissioner—
The ASSISTANT SPEAKER (H V Ross Robertson): Order! I am sorry to interrupt the member, but there is too much background noise going on. Members having private conversations, please do so outside the Chamber, unless it is absolutely necessary for the business of the House. It is discourteous to the member trying to address it.
Hon GERRY BROWNLEE: Yes, all right, Mr Speaker. Thank you. I was just making the point that although sometimes we may not always agree with the findings in reports that are brought down by Officers of Parliament, I think it is very important that we do have people in those roles who are capable of producing reports that are of substance and that will give the public confidence about the findings. Dr Wright has made it her personal commitment to have reports that are well reasoned and pragmatic.
She has served the country very well, and served the interests of the environment very well, since 2007. Having completed her first term, I am sure she will continue to do that in a second term. The Government supports the commissioner and looks forward to the upcoming report on hydroelectricity, wild rivers, and hot water heatings, with a focus on energy efficiency and water quality, as well as her report on fracking. These
are important. They are contemporary matters, and I am sure that Dr Wright will do a great job by the New Zealand environment in her reports.
GRANT ROBERTSON (Deputy Leader—Labour)
: I rise on behalf of the Labour Party to heartily support the motion of the Government to reappoint Jan Wright as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Dr Wright was appointed by the previous Labour Government in 2007. We believe that she has done an excellent job as the parliamentary commissioner, and we are pleased that the National-led Government has decided to reappoint her.
As was noted by Mr Brownlee, Dr Wright comes from a multidisciplinary background, and I think that is actually one of the great strengths that she brings to the office. She has a background in physics, in energy and resources, and, indeed, in public policy, with a qualification in that from Harvard University. She has drawn together those elements of her scientific knowledge with her knowledge of public policy—the way that our Government operates—to be a highly effective Officer of Parliament. I think all members of this Parliament should be grateful for the level of work, the integrity, and the focus that Jan Wright has brought to her position as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.
I think it is actually very good to hear Gerry Brownlee say that he has disagreed from time to time with the commissioner, because that is indeed the point. The commissioner is an officer of this House—
Hon Trevor Mallard: So have I.
GRANT ROBERTSON: And Trevor Mallard has disagreed with her, and indeed I am sure members around the House will find that they have also done so from time to time, and may well do so in the future. But that is exactly the point: as an Officer of Parliament, she is independent. She holds that independence dearly, I know, and, therefore, I am sure she will understand exactly what the words from the Minister mean—that she is a person who upholds that independence very well.
The other thing I would like to note about the approach that Jan Wright is taking to her role as parliamentary commissioner is the proactive nature of her work. It is the fact that she has been prepared to go out and take on issues that are, as Mr Brownlee calls them, contemporary, and be prepared to investigate them and make reports with quite specific recommendations. In fact, the parliamentary commissioner’s website offers the opportunity for New Zealanders to suggest to her topics for investigations. I think that is an excellent process, and one that other Officers of Parliament do in different ways. I think that is a very open process. It is one that gives some assurance to members of the public that this is somebody who is working on their behalf and is doing work that is not necessarily that which the Government asks for.
Most recently on this side of the House we are very, very pleased that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has taken on a suggestion made by the Labour Party and others that there should be an inquiry into fracking. It is an important process for her to undertake. The Labour Party in our manifesto said that we should have an inquiry into fracking, because it is an issue where there is now a lot of contested information. It is a process that has been going on in New Zealand for many years, and it is important that as more information about the process of fracking comes into the public arena, it is timely for the parliamentary commissioner to look at that issue, not only to make sure that New Zealand has a system that is robust enough to use that kind of technology within New Zealand, but also to look at the evidence from overseas. So on this side of the House we are extremely pleased that that will happen, and that that inquiry will come through. We do urge the Government to listen to the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment when it does come to her inquiry on fracking. She is a person who always looks at the evidence, and at the scientific basis
for her decisions, and we are looking forward to that report and to the recommendations that come from that, and to the Government adopting those recommendations.
The other element of Dr Wright’s tenure that I want to mention is her independence. In particular, in recent times I have seen that through her excellent submission on the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Bill, which is currently before the Local Government and Environment Committee. Her submission was one that was critical of elements of that Government bill—in particular, the fact that that bill does not meet our international obligations when it comes to these matters. It fails to reach the standards that are set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. She also made recommendations around changing the purpose of that bill to reflect more closely the principles of the Resource Management Act—i.e. the principles of sustainable management, rather than the bill introduced by the Government, which actually talked about the balance between interests, rather than having the presumption of sustainable management.
On this side of the House we are very proud of the fact that the Labour Party was the only party to oppose the first reading of that exclusive economic zone legislation, and we will await with interest the positions of other parties when that bill emerges from the committee. We have certainly seen Jan Wright’s submission on that bill as one of the most important submissions that the committee received. It was, as ever, evidence-based, and certainly gave the Government some strong indications of how that bill could be improved. Once again, we would hope that the Government would look at those recommendations, and, indeed, others that have come through in the process, and ensure that we have exclusive economic zone legislation that is robust, that does not weaken what happens already inside New Zealand’s territorial waters, and that makes sure we fulfil our international obligations.
The other reports that the commissioner has under way, as the Minister notes, are on important areas: climate change, electricity, and biodiversity. We are interested in making sure that those reports also find their way to the House in a timely manner. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has taken some innovative ways in getting her information out to the community, and I am sure she will continue to do that. We see towards the end of the month her report around wild rivers, which will be extremely interesting in the context of future care of our waterways and also energy generation.
I want to reflect on one of the matters that Dr Wright has raised several times in her tenure, and that is the desirability for better information about our environment, and, in particular, her desire that there be some better environmental reporting mechanism. I have a bill in the members’ ballot for an environment reporting bill. It is an environment reporting bill that would require the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to report every 5 years on the state of the New Zealand environment. It also requires the establishment of a standard set of indicators to assess the state of our environment. At the moment we have very patchy data in New Zealand, and patchy information about the overall quality of our environment, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has raised her concerns about this several times. I am aware that various Government agencies have been doing work on this issue, but the time has come for this kind of environment reporting. That is why I have placed that bill in the ballot.
I hope that bill is drawn from the ballot, but I actually hope, more than that, that the Government adopts a similar bill and actually puts it through the House, so that we can have good quality data on our environment. It is simply impossible for policy makers, and indeed for anyone interested in the environment, to fully be able to adopt policy and to develop policy if there is not good information and data available. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, as an independent person in our system, is exactly
the right person to compile that report. The Ministry for the Environment does do good work, but it is not an independent agency of Government as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is, so that is why it is appropriate that she is the person who does the environment reporting, that there is a standardised set of indicators, and that we fill in the gaps in the data that we already have.
On behalf of the Labour Party I am more than happy to endorse the recommendation of the Government to reappoint Dr Jan Wright as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. We believe that she has done an excellent job in her tenure. I am sure she will continue to do that, and continue to uphold her independence as an officer of this House.
The ASSISTANT SPEAKER (H V Ross Robertson): Just before I call the next member, I wish to advise the House that the Green Party has split its call between the honourable members Gareth Hughes and Eugenie Sage, and can do so under Standing Order 118(2).
GARETH HUGHES (Green)
: Kia ora. Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou. The Green Party shares the sentiments of the other parties in this House. We are glad to be unanimously supporting the reappointment of Dr Jan Wright as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Her record of reviewing, investigating, and inquiring on important and topical issues of our day deserves much respect and admiration. I think I share some of the sentiments in this House in that we do not agree with every recommendation she makes, but I think that surely shows that her role is so important in being an independent Officer of Parliament. In my brief call I want to look at two issues: her fracking investigation, recently announced, and the report on lignite coal she published last year.
Earlier on this year the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment announced she would be investigating fracking in New Zealand. We welcome this because it is needed, it is timely, and her office is an independent body that has the appropriate level of resources to investigate this. It is needed because there are huge concerns about fracking. Where do you get this massive quantity of water from? Where do you put the contaminated water? What are these toxic chemicals, and what about air pollution concerns and earthquakes? It is important that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment investigates it, because energy and resources Minister Phil Heatley says himself that there are many unanswered questions.
Mr Heatley has three misleading arguments, and one is that only Greens are opposed to it. Well, it is not. It is farmers, it is our city councils, and it is countries like Germany, France, and South Africa, which have banned or put temporary bans on fracking. The energy Minister says that there are no problems in Taranaki. What we have seen there, and I am sure the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment will look into it—
Hon Gerry Brownlee: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the member, but he appears to be unaware that this is a debate about the appointment of an individual who is an Officer of Parliament, not about any particular environmental issue.
The ASSISTANT SPEAKER (H V Ross Robertson): The member will have probably noticed that I actually asked him to narrow the debate. It is on the appointment of the commissioner. If the member would do that, I would appreciate it, and I am sure the House would.
GARETH HUGHES: I will share the sentiments of this House to talk about the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, because it is of such good quality. That is why the Green Party is supporting it—work such as her lignite report, published last year, and one of the reasons why we are supporting the reappointment. What the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment found is that Solid Energy is planning to dig up 6 billion tonnes of lignite, and what the
Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment recommended in her report to this House was that we should scrap the subsidies on that, which are $275 million a year, which our taxpayer is funding. I have got a bill in the ballot that has been developed from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s recommendations on that report.
With her independence and her well-researched team, she will do a good report on fracking. She has produced a good report on lignite, which the Green Party supports. We just wish the Government would pay a bit more attention to her reports.
Eugenie Sage: Mr Speaker—
The ASSISTANT SPEAKER (H V Ross Robertson): I recognise the honourable member Eugenie Sage. Just remember that it is a narrow debate. It is about why the commissioner is appointed—support it, or not.
EUGENIE SAGE (Green)
: I congratulate Dr Jan Wright on her appointment, and also congratulate the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment because it celebrates its 25th birthday this year. It was established under the Environment Act at the same time that the Department of Conservation and the Ministry for the Environment were established. As Dr Wright noted in a recent speech, the parliamentary commissioner’s office at that time was talked about as being an environmental auditor and an environmental ombudsman. Certainly that is what the office has been with its reports, which have made a series of recommendations, often to Ministers, and also her office’s role in providing advice to select committees. One of the more useful reports she has produced recently is the one on 1080, which separated a lot of the myths from the facts and recommended against a moratorium on 1080 use, as some hunting interests had sought.
Another of her useful reports was on water quality. That was a report that did not contain any recommendations, but did explain the science around water quality as simply as possible. It highlighted that we have got three major sources of water pollution: sediments, nutrients, and pathogens. That report was useful in providing an agreed basis of what the major sources of pollution are. But one of the things that the parliamentary commissioner noted when the appropriations for the office were considered before the Local Government and Environment Committee this year is that in the follow-up to this report about the state of environment reporting in New Zealand, last August the Minister for the Environment had said that there would be a commitment that her office would take on that function. But the office has only 16 full-time staff, it has a budget of $2.67 million, and if we are going to get a comprehensive state of the environment report in 2013-14, as the Government is anticipating, we need the legislation, but also there needs to be an increase in the budget for the office of about $1.35 million. So it will be interesting to see whether there is any provision for that in the upcoming Budget.
Another of the commissioner’s very useful reports was on mining on the conservation estate, and the difficult decisions that she alerted everybody to there. She highlighted that the current mining law and the current Conservation Act give mining an advantage over other commercial users. She recommended too against the Government’s commitment to amend the legislation and make the Minister of Energy and Resources have dual responsibility for mining applications on the conservation estate with the Minister of Conservation. That is a recommendation that the Green Party would strongly like to see implemented.
The parliamentary commissioner’s office, over the three commissioners, Dr Helen Hughes, Dr Morgan Williams, and now Dr Jan Wright, has done an enormous body of useful work. We commend her appointment and commend the work that the office does.