4 Nov 2015

Fish and Game quits Land and Water Forum

5:45 pm on 4 November 2015

A high profile member of a forum set up to advise the government on water and land use has quit, saying it was being muzzled and stopped from speaking out on environmental issues.

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Photo: 123rf.com

Fish and Game is leaving the Land and Water Forum, which collaboratively manages the country's land and water.

The forum brings together farmers, environmental groups, iwi, scientists and government observers to work together on managing those resources and making recommendations to the government.

But Fish and Game chief executive Bryce Johnson told Morning Report today that being inside the forum meant it was stopped from speaking to the media about its concerns.

"The protocol for participation that has been established by the chairman does limit the ability of participants to talk in the public arena and does very strongly discourage them from dealing with lobby ministers directly.

"So we just decided we need to be able to do our own job the way we think we should be able to do it."

Fish and Game communications manager Don Rood said after deliberating since February, the organisation felt it had no choice but to leave.

"The forum has already given the government more than 150 recommendations, it's going to give them another 60 and it's pointless providing hundreds of recommendations when the government has done virtually nothing on the vast majority of the ones it already has.

"So it's forced us to reappraise whether we should continue to be part of it and that decision is that we should leave it."

The Ecologic Foundation - which is part of the forum - is a think tank which conducts research and promotes sustainable development.

Executive director Guy Salmon said the forum introduced a Scandanavian model where groups worked with government to come up with solutions and he said it can work when followed properly.

"It's all about trying to get all the stakeholders together in a process in which they try and understand each other's points of view and come to a consensus. And the thing that really makes this work is the final decision-maker, the government, actually respecting the consensus that comes out of the process.

"Back in 2006 the National Party published a little document called A Bluegreen Vision for New Zealand in which they committed themselves to trying to run environmental policy on a collaborative basis and they mentioned the Nordic countries as a model for how good this was, both from an environmental point of view and a business point of view.

"They have been trying to do it, but the question really is what they do with the recommendations that come out of it and different parties have got different views about how well it's really working in New Zealand."

Mr Rood said the government was not listening and the decision-making was not a mutual process.

He said the government needed to start acting on the forum's advice.

"The government needs to actually start to implement the recommendations already given to it by the Land and Water Forum which is to make the environment a better place, to protect it and we feel that the government is dragging its feet on this."

Nick Smith during caucas run 5/5/15

Environment Minister, Nick Smith Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Environment Minister Nick Smith said he was not surprised by Fish and Games' departure, but he was disappointed.

Dr Smith said a 'good number' of the forum's recommendations had been acted on.

"I don't have the exact list in front of me to be able to give you the number. What I can say is that simplistically counting off the numbers does not give due respect to the really important recommendations around national policy statements, around the National Objectives Framework, around the funding for cleanups, around putting in place a reporting system around the quality of our fresh water, most of those have been implemented."

He said despite it being a collaborative process there was an expectation by organisations such as Fish and Game that they were in a governance role.

"But Parliament is sovereign and the government of the day will always be responsible for national policy statements and their implementation."

Mr Smith questioned whether Fish and Game was more interested in protest than progress and said he thought that Fish and Game's complaint that it was muzzled by being in the forum was just a fabrication, as the rules around the forum had been in place since 2010.

Environmental Defense Society 'disappointed'

The Environmental Defence Society (EDS) said it was disappointed Fish and Game had pulled out of the Land and Water Forum, because its experts were making a valuable contribution.

EDS chairman Gary Taylor said the withdrawal was especially concerning ahead of the next round of the forum's work, which is due to start in 2016.

"[The final round] is looking at the crucially important issue of reviewing the national policy statement and the national objectives framework, which set national guidelines for freshwater management.

"And I would very much have appreciated having Fish and Game's experts in the room with us."

EDS had not felt gagged while being part of the forum, Mr Taylor said.

"What we haven't done is run the discussion that is happening within the Land and Water Forum on a particular topic out in the public arena.

"That's fair enough. You don't want people gaming the debate, as it were, as it's being undertaken. But on freshwater issues, we've certainly spoken out when we've felt like it."