Offices of Parliament—Address to Governor-General
Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN (Leader of the House)
: I move,
That a respectful Address be presented to Her Excellency the Governor-General commending to Her Excellency the alterations to the appropriations for the 2002/03 financial year in respect of Vote Audit, Vote Ombudsmen, and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the appropriations for the 2003/04 financial year in respect of Vote Audit, Vote Ombudsmen, and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. This motion brings before the House the recommendations from the Officers of Parliament Committee in a report presented on 25 March 2003.
Section 17 of the Public Finance Act, together with Standing Order 191, set out the procedures applying to votes for Offices of Parliament. Specified information is provided by the chief executive of each office of Parliament for consideration by the House. The Officers of Parliament Committee examines that information and makes recommendations to the House. The House recommends to the Governor-General by way of an address, alterations to votes for offices of Parliament during a financial year, and estimates for the next financial year. The Officers of Parliament Committee is chaired by the Speaker. All parties in the House, except the Progressive Coalition, are represented on the committee, and the committee was unanimous in its recommendations.
LINDSAY TISCH (NZ National—Piako)
: I have pleasure on behalf of National in supporting this motion. The funding for the offices of Parliament—that is, the Office of the Ombudsmen, the Auditor-General, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment—is determined by the Officers of Parliament Committee, rather than by Cabinet. National is pleased to support the motion.
There are, however, a number of issues that arose during our discussions on the Auditor-General’s report. I want to mention these briefly. The Audit Office has experienced, since the last election, increasing demands on its time. Parliamentary and community expectation of public sector performance and accountability is always there, and is increasing. With the number of new members of Parliament there probably will be increased demand on the services of the Audit Office.
At the same time, with regard to local government the public expectation is also increasing, and that has been evidenced in the increased number of complaints that the office has received over the last 12 months. There has been a real challenge, which will face not only the Audit Office but also accountancy firms—that is, the reputation, the credibility, of the accounting and auditing professions. This has come about through the demise of a number of overseas companies—in particular, Enron. There are international events that may have implications for both the New Zealand profession and the Audit Office. Work will need to be done in this area, and we understand that the report by the Auditor-General to the select committee was that the Accounting Standards Review Board has recommended the adoption of the international financial reporting standards by 2007, and this may pose issues requiring particular attention for the public sector in New Zealand. There are some risks involved with this, and these are the challenges that the Audit Office will have to contend with.
There has been increased demand for the services of the Audit Office, and I want to refer to the number of taxpayers who are using those services and also parliamentarians. As I mentioned earlier, with a changeover of Government, with the new Parliament, new MPs have come in and that is placing increasing demands. There are between 250 to 300 inquiries received each year. These are mainly on the performance audits of public entities. Additional funds have been provided. National supports the additional funding. That will allow the office to get through the studies that have been commissioned.
There is the provision for non-contested audit services, and also the provision of contested audit and assurance services. If we read through the report on these we see the Auditor-General has a statutory duty to conduct an audit of the financial statements of more than 3,900 public entities. So it is a huge operation. Audits are undertaken either by Audit New Zealand or by the private sector.
Just to finish on this section, class 3, which is referred to, comprises the audits of approximately 400 public entities, and class 4 is the remaining 3,500 entities. Two thousand five hundred of those are schools. The Audit Office goes through a very important process. The Audit Office undertakes a number of studies, and they are listed in its very comprehensive plan. National has much pleasure in supporting Vote Auditor-General.
In moving to Vote Ombudsmen, we see a number of issues have been resolved. Once again, we are happy to support this vote. The new remuneration rates for the Chief Ombudsman and the Ombudsman, Mel Smith, were advised by the Higher Salaries Commission. They became effective last year on 1 October 2002, so there is an increased cost to the Permanent Legislative Authority, and an extra $40,000 has been allocated for that purpose. One should be aware that the remuneration of the other Ombudsman, Judge Anand Satyanand, actually comes out of Vote Courts. The Office of the Ombudsmen is not required to fund that.
There has also been an interesting dilemma that the Office of the Ombudsmen has had to face, and that has been court action that has been taken against it. Another $100,000 has been appropriated to meet legal fees. It is unusual that the Crown Law Office, working on behalf of Work and Income, has taken a case against the Office of the Ombudsmen. We have allowed for $100,000 for legal fees. The office does not have any contingency to fund and defend legal proceedings. Therefore it is important that that is fully funded, and that has been achieved.
The office has also allowed for another small legal firm adjacent to its primary tenancies to merge. This property is on The Terrace and a merger has taken place, with a little reallocation of funds. That is a move in the right direction and, certainly, we have supported it. About $36,000 has gone into that area.
There are a number of increasing demands on the Office of the Ombudsmen, and the objectives that have been set out for the year 2003-04 are interesting. The caseload at the moment has been between 6,000 and 6,500 investigations each year. Approximately 5,500 are complaints lodged under the Ombudsmen Act, the Official Information Act, the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, and the Protected Disclosures Act. It is a huge operation, with 6,500 complaints and investigations undertaken. The existing profiles have to be maintained, there is an average of nine visits per year to penal institutions, and there are about 2,000 new complaints from prison inmates during that period.
There is a huge commitment there, and that goes along with the tertiary institutions. There are 40 tertiary institutions, and the ombudsmen make two visits per year to each of those institutions. The ombudsmen expect that there will be an increase in parliamentary requests during the next year, resulting from political interest positioning for the next general election. They make the comment that, as we build up to the next election, there will be other requests that the Office of the Ombudsmen will have to handle, and that is to be expected in the run-up to the 2005 election.
National is very happy to support the role that the Office of the Ombudsmen plays, and the motion that the Minister has put forward. Two other risks that the office will be confronted with are the increased workload coming from the education sector and the increased demands on the office’s time, under the Accident Compensation Corporation. The office has identified the issues that it will need to address and the challenges it will face. We believe that the funding provided for the office in these appropriations will be sufficient, and National has great pleasure in supporting the motion.
DAIL JONES (NZ First)
: New Zealand First will support the first motion with regard to the approval in respect of Vote Audit, Vote Ombudsmen, and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. There is no doubt about that aspect of the matter. In keeping with our role as an Opposition party, and, perhaps, I suggest even as a member of Parliament, one should pay close attention to the matters that come before the House concerning the expenditure of public money, and, of course, in this particular area, the funds that will be needed by the various departments to carry out their functions in the forthcoming year.
I was on the Officers of Parliament Committee when these matters were discussed. I wish to record my concern in so far as Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is concerned. As I recall it, some funds were being made available for travel. One always becomes concerned as to just how far this travel will extend, financially and literally, what people will come to New Zealand to visit us in return, and just how this might grow. I record that New Zealand First has expressed its concern with regard to the utilisation of public funds in the area of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. We will make sure that it does not become excessive in the future. We have a very good Commission for the Environment, and a very good concept. New Zealand has always been a place where the environment has been fully appreciated, whether or not there has been some statutory body associated with it.
I turn to Vote Ombudsmen. I am concerned as to whether sufficient funds would be available. I note in particular pages 27, 28, and 29 of the Ombudsmen’s report, for the year ended 30 June 2002, in relation to those aspects of the Official Information Act and advice from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Prime Minister. The statement on page 27 states: “A significant issue arising this year has been the extent to which advice from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Prime Minister may be withheld. A series of complaints were received regarding what was perceived to be a ‘class approach’ taken to the withholding of such information.” The report states that at the heart of the decision to withhold information was a fundamental concern that in order to carry out the role of Prime Minister effectively, the incumbent must be able to receive and rely on, with confidence, free and frank advice from his or her advisers. Clearly, that concern is valid. It is in the public interest for the Prime Minister of the day to receive such advice.
The report states further: “However, the Official Information Act does not provide any basis for blanket withholding of information generated by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as an exempt ‘class of information’. Requests for such information must be assessed on a case-by-case basis against the tests for withholding set out in the Act.”
I wonder whether adequate funds are made available this year, for example, with regard to the letters written or not written by officials in the Prime Minister’s department in respect of the apology to President Bush. As an Opposition party we should be entitled, in terms of the Official Information Act provisions of Vote Ombudsmen, to have access to such letters. That is our parliamentary duty. I believe that it is set out in the principles of Vote Ombudsmen and in the principles of the Official Information Act. The withholding of such information, which is set out in the Ombudsmen’s report, is very valid. I ask the Prime Minister to get back to New Zealand and to let us have details of the letter or letters that may or may not have been written in terms of the Official Information Act requirements. We should have this information released to the public of New Zealand. It should not be withheld on the basis of her views on the matter.
In terms of the funding in this particular area, there should be adequate funds for the Ombudsman to have the money to obtain that information from the Prime Minister’s department. I ask the next Government member who takes a call to say whether he or she is satisfied that such funding is available. It would seem to be a very difficult and expensive task to have the time and facilities available to keep pursuing the Prime Minister, to get this information from her.
I believe that there is not sufficient funding available in this vote to get this information. Why is the information not made available immediately, to make it unnecessary to have such funding? Why is it that time and time again Opposition members have to make demands of the Prime Minister to get this information? I remember a time when the Prime Minister was very strong on things like open government. If she were still strong on open government then the question of funding would not arise. I remember a time when the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Helen Clark, was very strong on answerability by the Government to the Opposition. Well, we want her to be answerable. Is there enough funding in this vote to enable us to pursue the question of whether we could make the Prime Minister answerable to the public of New Zealand? That point is raised as a criticism in this particular report. Perhaps it has not been noticed by other parties in this House. New Zealand First is concerned that in this report the Ombudsman has expressed a criticism of the way in which this Prime Minister and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet are handling its affairs.
We know that the Ombudsman is loathe to criticise Ministers, and would be even more loathe to criticise a Prime Minister. But there is clearly an implicit criticism of the way in which this department is handling the affairs of State. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet clearly is of concern to the Ombudsman, and it is of concern to New Zealand First. We want to make sure that we can get access to those letters that have been written, and that there is sufficient funding in this vote to have that access.
We want the Prime Minister to tell us why she will make it so difficult for us to get this information. Why is she swanning around at services overseas, when she is needed here in New Zealand to answer such questions and to answer the need for the funding to enable us to bring this information to hand? I wish to draw that matter to the attention of this House. The Ombudsman is very right in bringing this matter to the attention of the country, and New Zealand First will be making sure that all steps are taken to ensure that there are adequate funds to get to the bottom of the matter.
KEITH LOCKE (Green)
: I rise as a Green member of the Officers of Parliament Committee to support this motion. I have been very pleasantly surprised at how well the Officers of Parliament system works and how accountable the officers are. In terms of the budget provided by this Parliament, there has been a very cooperative relationship between the three Officers of Parliament and the committee in achieving common ground on what the increases in their expenditure should be. I think that the three Officers of Parliament are all doing a good job. The last speaker indicated how they were willing to challenge authority in the case he referred to, to make sure that advice provided to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is not, as a class, deemed confidential and unavailable to the public, and that each case, under the Official Information Act, has to be provided on a case by case basis. I think that that in itself shows the importance of the Ombudsmen in helping the public to get access to public information.
I do support what Mr Lindsay Tisch said earlier about the load on the Ombudsmen, the efficiency of the Office of the Ombudsmen, and the annual report. He mentioned the large number of complaints and the time the office spends on them, with a relatively small staff. I and the last speaker have been talking about the application of the Official Information Act, and in the 2002 annual report it is stated that there were 863 Official Information Act investigations, 18 percent of them from members of Parliament. Out of those 863 cases, 66 percent were resolved in favour of the complainant, or some assistance was given to the complainant to get the information he or she required. I think that that in itself shows two things. It shows the importance of the Office of the Ombudsmen in terms of making sure there is access to the Official Information Act, and it also shows, I think, that Government departments perhaps need to be a little more open with the provisions of the Official Information Act.
There was reference in Mr Tisch’s speech to the work of the Office of the Ombudsmen in relation to prisoners. I think it is important that prisoners have the ability to make appeals to the Office of the Ombudsmen. It is difficult in a prison environment if things go wrong, or if there is some mistreatment or injustice, for prisoners to get proper redress. I think that the Office of the Ombudsmen is very valuable there, and it has performed good work. The ombudsmen now cover all the local government agencies, as well, and I think that the ability of the ombudsmen to delve into those issues is ensuring greater transparency for local government. In the report, the Ombudsman does raise an issue, now that they do cover education agencies of the State. There is the question that they do make accountable and transparent the operation of education agencies, but there are private training establishments that are provided with similar Government funds for the work they do and that are not subject to the Ombudsman’s investigations, and there is a certain inequality there. So, all in all, I think that the Office of the Ombudsmen has done very well.
I also want to talk about the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment who has done excellent work. He has addressed many of the questions that we in this Parliament have to address, and he provides information, advice, and analysis for our own work. Just today we have been talking about the electricity problems in this country. It is interesting to look at the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s annual report and see that the office is developing an electricity audit framework. It is trying to make sure that electricity generation and provision to the population is done in an environmentally sustainable manner. In the last annual report, there is a sentence that is quite relevant. It states: “In the electricity sector where RMA resource consent processes focus on managing effects on the local environment” less account is taken of “environmental effects at a national or international level. This has the potential to lead to more thermal electricity generation being established rather than renewable energy sources, such as hydro or wind.” I think that is very relevant in the light of our international commitment that we are developing to the Kyoto Protocol, and the crisis we are in at the present time. We need much more national planning in terms of demand management and extra generating capacity, and making sure, as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment does project in its annual report, that it should be more in the direction of renewable energy such as hydro or wind.
If members read the annual report, they will see that there is a section on public transport. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment led an 18-person study tour to the Brazilian town of Curitiba, which has a model transport system. It has been on television in New Zealand. Around the world people are looking to Curitiba, and that 18-person study tour has had huge flow-on effects. I know that in Auckland recently a seminar was initiated by some of the councillors who went on that study tour with the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. The ripple effects of that study tour are going out throughout the community. The report talks about the whole question of what measures we need to develop in order to get a balanced transport system—a balance between road and different alternatives to roads—and the importance, the Parliamentary Commissioner says, of adequately valuing the space requirements for different modes of transport, adequately valuing pedestrian space as against parking spaces, not just giving priority to parking spaces, and how to value public transport corridors, which I think is very important. I come from Auckland, and I think the valuation that the citizens are now putting on the bus lanes is increasing month by month. People understand the importance of that space being given to buses even if it does take a lane off the car traffic. It has increased public transport usage dramatically and made transport more efficient.
The parliamentary commissioner also produced a very important document last year:
Creating our future: Sustainable development for New Zealand. It has important recommendations, and some criticisms, really, that Governments to date have not really developed the sorts of approaches that are required. It talks about the need for much more long-term planning to protect our environment. The recommendations in this major document state that the Minister of Local Government, in consultation with Local Government New Zealand, should develop guidelines for local authorities on preparing long-term community plans dealing with environmental, economic, social, and cultural sustainability, consistent with the principles of Agenda 21, the Rio declaration. It proposes that the Prime Minister establish an advisory body responsible for overseeing and coordinating the implementation of the Government’s proposed New Zealand strategy on sustainable development. It goes on to explain some of the things that such a strategy should develop. There is a lack—it is pointed out by the parliamentary commissioner—of real national planning, because environmental planning cannot be done just on a local level. It has to be done by the Government through this strategy, through the harnessing of communities across the country, and through the establishment of such an advisory body.
I think that all three Officers of Parliament have done a good job. The Audit Office is doing a good job, of course. I see in its work plan this year that it is doing a study of overseas development assistance. Auditing that will be very valuable. It is doing a study of private-public partnerships to see whether there is really much of an advantage to New Zealanders in going down that track. It is all very valuable work.
STEPHEN FRANKS (ACT NZ)
: I rise on behalf of the ACT party to speak on the appropriations for the three Offices of Parliament: the Audit Office, the Office of the Ombudsmen, and the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. These offices, of course, are constitutional anomalies in a sense. They are offices that report directly to Parliament. They are intended to be watchdogs on the executive, the Crown, in theory, for Parliament. It is the time of year when we should be reviewing to see whether we are getting value for money from those people employed by Parliament directly to allow Parliament to know that the Crown, the executive, the people who report to Cabinet Ministers, are doing what the law says they should do and no more, and that power is not being abused.
I look at the offices that I know most about. I was an officer of the Office of the Ombudsmen for 2 years, so there is a certain sentimental regard when I look at the appropriations for the Office of the Ombudsmen. I have to say I was a low-level investigating officer. I had no regard for its budget—I do not know what it was. But I always look at the work of the ombudsmen and the people who work in that office with a great degree of interest. I was intrigued to notice that $100,000 extra is recommended for allocation by Parliament, to enable the Office of the Ombudsmen to defend proceedings brought by the Crown Law Office against the decision that the Ministry of Social Development must release tenant address information to the Department for Courts so that tenancy judgment orders can be enforced. It seems so absolutely obvious that the Crown should be acting in what the Government is pleased to call—what is the term? It is “whole-of Government”. That is the funny term for it—a whole-of-Government approach. In other words, the left hand should at least be supporting what the right hand is doing. People should be expecting the Government to be consistent.
Here we have a situation where the Office of the Ombudsmen’s time, energy, and money, appropriated by this Parliament, will be used to defend a decision of the ombudsman that would seem to be so bleedingly obvious, to use a recently sanctified phrase, that it defies belief. That the Department for Courts has to get the Ombudsman to ask the Ministry of Social Development for tenant address information to enforce tenancy judgment orders is just unbelievable. How can anyone in the social policy area expect landlords of any kind to be willing to provide tenant accommodation if the Government colludes in looking after the tenancy bludgers—the ones who let all the others down, the ones who put up the cost, the ones who add to the risk of being a landlord, the ones who create the environment where excessive rentals can be justified on the grounds of risk? Here we have the Office of the Ombudsmen making a sensible decision—that of course the Department for Courts should have access to the information the Government has. How many tenants would not expect the Government to work in that way?
When I was in the Office of the Ombudsmen I dealt with complaints against the Inland Revenue Department. There was a very clear recognition that the Inland Revenue Department was different from all other departments, that the information one gave to the Inland Revenue Department was held sacrosanct, and that one could be a prostitute or a bookie, or engaged in all kinds of activity that the rest of the State did not approve of, but the Inland Revenue Department would keep it sacrosanct. Conversely, I think citizens expected that if the Government got information in any other capacity, it used it for proper Government purposes—and here we have to give the Office of the Ombudsmen $100,000 to defend itself against the Crown Law Office, on behalf of the social welfare Minister, Mr Maharey.
I am also fascinated by the appropriations for the Commissioner for the Environment. That is not because I know a great deal about what the commissioner has been up to but because I do not know a great deal about what he has been up to. Here I am, a member of Parliament, and I expected that our Commissioner for the Environment would be a guiding light, and that he would have thrown a great deal of sunlight on some of the really hard issues. For example, a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, I would have thought, would have an active interest in the “corngate” affair. This is an issue where Parliament needs objective information. Instead, a parliamentary select committee is embroiled in a political stoush over what is the reality or truth in the “corngate” affair. Was the Prime Minister involved in some sort of collusive activity with the Minister for the Environment to suppress information about the release of a genetically modified organism? I am surprised that we did not hear the Green speaker who has just finished, asking why the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment was not deep into this in order to make sure that Parliament really knew what had happened.
I look at others. We are importing Indonesian coal to run our power stations—Indonesian coal, from the people raping Indonesia, as we hear. We are importing Indonesian coal to burn and to inject into the environment we all have to share. I have not heard a peep from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on the consistency and whole-of-Government approach that has the Department of Conservation blocking coalmining on the West Coast. In another of my earlier existences, I was on the board of Coal Corporation of New Zealand. [Interruption] The United Future member is mentioning hydro schemes. The fact is that we should expect this commissioner to be the one who says: “Hey, there’s an anomaly here. Parliament has three or four different kinds of legislation. It is getting various reports. Different departments are doing different things, but it’s not hanging together.” The commissioner should be asking the Department of Conservation why it is blocking the mining of coal in New Zealand when we have what someone said in the House today was 800 years’ worth of coal. Instead of allowing New Zealand coal to be mined, we are importing 600,000 tonnes of coal into Auckland from Australia and Indonesia, and we could have been providing that ourselves.
If the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment was using his $2 million in the way I had expected we would benefit, for genuine environmentalism, we might have had some idea of the value of time spent in traffic jams, and about the emissions from time spent in traffic jams. We might have had an audit of the spurious claims about deaths from exhaust emissions, based on overseas models and not properly applied to New Zealand conditions. We might have had a review of the claims about people dying of cold because power is not available to them. Again, it may be that the commissioner has put out something clear and objective on this and I just have not come across it, but he is our commissioner and I still do not know whether it is true that anyone in New Zealand dies of cold because they do not have enough electricity, when they could have put a jersey on or put a hot water bottle in their bed. It is possible. I saw a claim very recently that New Zealand houses had to have a whole lot of fibreglass batts in them because we were dying in our homes because they were too cold. That seems to me eminently something that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment should have got into.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment should have been looking at the new local government bill, the Resource Management Act. He should have been looking at the restraints on transmission, and at the problem of the national grid not having enough capacity to move power between Auckland and Wellington, or between the South Island and Auckland, in a way that would allow more hydro and less gas and diesel generation. Probably, we will see all over the country in the next few months inefficient diesel generation at an individual level. I believe that the $2 million the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is being paid should have been put under strict scrutiny. I see no reason in this report for continuing with this office. Though it is a godmother and apple pie thing, it is time it was reviewed.
GORDON COPELAND (United Future)
: I could refer to the three votes in question in a general way, as Stephen Franks has—as the watchdog functions of the New Zealand Parliament. I could also perhaps describe them as being a kind of triple bottom line accounting for the affairs of this nation: Vote Audit, to ensure that the income and expenditure of the Crown has been accounted for in accordance with international best practice and the ethics that relate to good stewardship of those resources; Vote Ombudsman, to ensure that the overall apparatus of the Government adheres to the principles of justice, fair play, and openness, which is so much at the heart of our society; and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment—which completes the troika—to ensure that all of us remain aware that we are merely guardians of the precious and beautiful environment that makes New Zealand not only the most beautiful country in the world but also a country that is great to live in, to raise a family in, and to come home to.
Speaking about the Commissioner for the Environment, I would like to endorse the comments made by Stephens Franks on behalf of the ACT party concerning the nonsense of having perfectly viable hydro electricity schemes in this country turned down by people who claim to be guarding the environment or to have an interest in conservation whilst, concurrently, this winter we will be importing fuel oil and coal to generate electricity. The reality is that the water in our rivers and lakes falls from the sky, and is completely free, and hydro is completely in line with very sensible conservation outcomes—by which I mean the management of natural resources in a way that enhances the environment. With those comments I signal United Future’s support of this motion.
Hon Dr NICK SMITH (NZ National—Nelson)
: I join with others in speaking to motion No. 1, which provides for the parliamentary vote for Vote Ombudsmen, Vote Audit, and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. As the National spokesperson on the environment, I particularly want to focus on the vote for the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. A number of speakers have commented on the issue of the power crisis, and that is important in terms of the recommendations provided for in the report on the Offices of Parliament that there be an increase in the appropriation for the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to provide specifically for a review of the electricity governance organisations, and I want to speak to some of those issues.
I commend the United Future party and the contribution that has just been made by Mr Copeland for highlighting the nonsense and the environmental lunacy that is currently going on, whereby we are so pure in stopping sensible developments of sustainable energy in New Zealand that we end up in a crisis that has us burning oil and importing coal to meet this country’s energy needs. That is a fundamental failure of public policy. But I have to challenge my colleague from United Future, because we have heard, in terms of the changes to the Resource Management Act, that his party is supporting—
Mr SPEAKER: The member can refer to those issues in so far as they concern these votes, and whether the vote should be approved. It is not a general discussion on policy.
Hon Dr NICK SMITH: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment provides for an increase specifically on the issue of electricity generation—
Mr SPEAKER: And the member can say whether he is in favour of that.
Hon Dr NICK SMITH: Let me finish my point of order, if I may.
Mr SPEAKER: The member is only using up his own time.
Hon Dr NICK SMITH: What a touchy mood you are in today, Mr Speaker.
Mr SPEAKER: The member is just about to have his speech terminated. I ask him to please carry on with his speech.
Hon Dr NICK SMITH: My reference is this: the United Future party members cannot give speeches, such as the speech that has just been given in respect of Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, expressing concerns about issues of energy while at the same time supporting law that will make the very issues of energy more difficult. We need a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment for exactly those sorts of reasons—to hold those sorts of contradictions to account. I challenge that party, if it is going to stand by the sort of contribution it has made, to rethink its views about resource management, because that party is part of the problem at the moment, not part of the solution.
I also want to challenge the Government in respect of the nonsense we have seen on issues such as the Resource Management Act. I want to see the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment look at the lunacy around such issues that is dragging Government agencies into debates about cultural landscapes, ancestral landscapes, and chasing taniwha instead of focusing on key environmental issues. This country’s energy crisis is a very serious issue for this Parliament. It will have a very substantial effect on both the economic and social well-being of our country. It will have an adverse environmental impact. It is just the sort of work that is required of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, and that is why National supports an increase in the vote, specifically for that purpose—for Dr Morgan Williams and his team at the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.
There is a further issue that I specifically wish to raise in respect of this vote. Today I want to call on the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to use the additional financial resources to carry out an inquiry into what I think is an environmental disaster for this country—that is, what is going on with the Rotorua lakes. We have a beautiful set of lakes in the upper North Island—in Rotorua and in the area surrounding Hamilton. What occurred over this last summer—I refer to the blue-green algae—was an environmental disaster. It is a tragedy that neither the Minister nor the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, or even the Green Party, has shown a blind bit of interest in that environmental disaster. Last summer, Lake Rotoiti, one of the most used recreational lakes in New Zealand, became so polluted from blue-green algae that people cannot swim in it or drink from it. It was estimated that up to 300,000 people use that lake over the summer, but this year that did not occur. If it were only Lake Rotoiti that was of concern, we might not get so excited, but the reality is that there are over 15 popular recreational lakes in the upper half of the North Island that are in one great environmental mess, and, in my view, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment should apply urgent attention to that issue.
I get so frustrated that this Parliament and this Government spent so much time on an issue like genetic technology, which is a non-issue, posing no substantive threat to the health and well-being of the environment of this nation, yet on an important issue like the environmental well-being of our lakes, nobody seems to give a toss. The Minister for the Environment has even used her powers to stop sensible rules from being put in place. I have a photo here of stock openly wandering around those lakes, contributing to the nutrification of those lakes, and the Minister makes submissions to the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, baulking at rules that would help fix up that sort of difficulty. So I challenge the Government, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in particular, to give some attention to the national disaster that is taking place in those North Island lakes. I stress that those lakes are tremendous environmental and recreational assets for New Zealand. The way in which those lakes have been polluted, and the way in which public authorities have failed to address the fundamental issues—the algae bloom that is causing the toxicity in the lakes, the smell, and the discolouration, and the lack of the capacity to be able to drink or even swim in those waters—are matters that need attention.
On behalf of National I compliment the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner on the Environment on the good work it does. It does need to keep a strong focus on science, not politics. I bring the important issue of poor energy policy, as well as the issues affecting the Rotorua lakes, to the attention of that office in the hope that the financial resources, which we are in support of, will be wisely used to address those issues.
- Motion agreed to, and Address agreed to.