Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Damning The Dam.

Dam Democracy 1982:  Thirty-five years on, and the National Party has been making threatening noises about executing another constitutional outrage in support of another dam. With just a couple of statements the Prime Minister, Bill English, and his Conservation Minister, Maggie Barry, made it clear that more than three decades of profound political change have made not the slightest impression on the National Party’s understanding of New Zealand’s constitutional proprieties. If the Ruataniwha Dam cannot be secured by hook, then this government stands ready to secure it by crook.
 
ABOVE THE CHAINS looped through the handles of the Dunedin Courthouse, the protesters had affixed a sign. “This Court is now obsolete, irrelevant, and just a nuisance. Accordingly it is CLOSED until such time as people no longer expect the law to protect their rights.”
 
Identical “Dam Democracy” notices were affixed to the padlocked doors of the Court of Appeal in Wellington and the Christchurch High Court. All were inspired by the passage of the Clutha Development (Clyde Dam) Empowering Act 1982. Having proved their case to the satisfaction of the Court of Appeal, opponents of the Clyde Dam had been forced to endure the sordid spectacle of Rob Muldoon’s National Government dragooning Parliament into overturning the Court’s decision. Hence the protests.
 
Thirty-five years on, and the National Party has been making threatening noises about executing another constitutional outrage in support of another dam. With just a couple of statements the Prime Minister, Bill English, and his Conservation Minister, Maggie Barry, made it clear that more than three decades of profound political change have made not the slightest impression on the National Party’s understanding of New Zealand’s constitutional proprieties. If the Ruataniwha Dam cannot be secured by hook, then this government stands ready to secure it by crook.
 
The common thread linking these extraordinary events is the National Party’s peculiar fetish for state planning and control. Once convinced that New Zealand’s future prosperity requires the implementation of a specific set of economic initiatives, the Nats’ adherence to “The Plan” puts the programmatic rigidity of the old Soviet Union to shame.
 
In the days of Rob Muldoon, “The Plan” was known as “Think Big”. New Zealand was going to become self-sufficient in energy off the back of a number of huge development projects – of which the damming of the Clutha River at Clyde was the largest. “Think Big” did not stop at vast hydro-electric schemes and synthetic fuel plants, however. With the additional energy Muldoon proposed to power steel mills and a second aluminium smelter. The latter was to be built at Aramoana – at the mouth of Otago Harbour.
 
The environmental impact of “Think Big” was deemed to be catastrophic, but Muldoon’s National Government turned both a blind eye and a deaf ear to the consequences of “The Plan”.
 
Under John Key and Bill English, “The Plan” is all about the intensification of primary production – especially dairying. But, whereas Muldoon was following the economic policies of industrialisation and diversification promoted by, of all people, the left-wing economic nationalist, senior civil servant and historian, William B Sutch; the plan chosen by Key and English represents a reactionary, Federated Farmers-inspired retreat into the worst kind of price-dependent pastoralism.
 
Like “Think Big”, the Key-English Plan came with catastrophic environmental side-effects. The massive expansion of New Zealand’s dairy industry could only be accomplished by supplying transitioning farmers with huge quantities of heavily subsidised water. State-funded – and protected – irrigation schemes formed an integral part of the Key-English Plan.
 
The constitutional consequences of “The Plan” soon became apparent. When ECan – The Canterbury Regional Council – balked at signing-off on the all-too-obvious ecological devastation associated with implementing water policies aimed at increasing the number of dairy cows in the region from less than 50,000 to nearly half-a-million, the National Government simply dismissed the councillors and brought in commissioners. If the needs of Democracy and the needs of “The Plan” conflicted, then it would not be Democracy that prevailed.
 
For the ratepayers of the Hawkes Bay region the story was somewhat different. The balance of political forces on the Hawkes Bay Regional Council was (until very recently) narrowly, but firmly, in favour of constructing an irrigation storage dam at Ruataniwha. That the project would almost certainly end up poisoning the Tukituki River was not considered a sufficient reason to abandon the project. Indeed, an official report suggesting that the intensification of dairying which the Ruataniwha Dam would make possible represented a threat to the region’s ecosystem was recalled and rewritten.
 
In spite of the fact that the Hawkes Bay Regional Council had yet to secure possession of the land upon which the dam would be built, it is reported to have sanctioned the expenditure of approximately $20 million on ensuring that the project went ahead. Such was their faith in the Key-English Plan.
 
But, just like Rob Muldoon, they reckoned without the Courts. The Supreme Court’s decision striking down the Department of Conservation’s facilitation of the Ruataniwha project – like the Court of Appeal’s ruling against the Clyde Dam – leaves the National Government facing a hard choice: uphold the constitution, or, uphold “The Plan”.
 
It is unlikely that “The Plan” can be legislatively protected retrospectively before the General Election. New Zealanders are thus presented with an opportunity to deliver a judgement of their own. In 2017, Democracy can “Damn the Dam”.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 July 2017.

11 comments:

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I've said this before probably, but it does bear repeating. Conservatives love democracy, until they don't. And that usually occurs when it somehow gets in the way of "progress". They also love freedom of speech until they don't, transparency until they don't, the rule of law until they don't, and even the free market until they don't. Always, right up to the point where it inconveniences them.

jh said...

You can't have population growth without dams or nuclear power plants.

BlisteringAttack said...

My mother's cousin was a dairy farmer for 60 odd years.

He said the dairy sector was a wet province industry ie it is best in provinces that have enough rain - Southland, South Otago, Westland, Manawatu, Taranaki, Waikato etc

Rain = grass = milk

When he heard of massive irrigation projects supporting dairying in Canterbury etc he said it was 'like trying to milk cows on Mars'

Kiwiwit said...

Much as I detest the National Party's "peculiar fetish for state planning and control", I think history has proven the Muldoon Government's decision on the Clyde Dam to be sound both in terms of economic benefit and energy security (although history wasn't so kind to the rest of the Think Big projects). But I agree that recent decisions on dams and water rights for dairying expansion are ill-considered. The problem is that the incentives and compliance costs of the planning environment, particularly the Resource Management Act, favour cronyism and big projects - and the recent changes just make it worse. Environmentalists see the RMA as their friend but it is not - it is a permissive regime that socialises costs, rather than letting the costs fall where they should (i.e. on those who benefit).

Charles E said...

Not a sound argument Chris unless you replace 'National' with 'the government' in your text.
You fail to mention that the Clark government backed irrigation in the SI a plenty, and set up Fonterra with special legislation to have a near monopoly.
Labour would also back more dams like the one you write about and DoC have done land swaps before and want to do more I'm sure. I know of one on a farm I grow forest on where the farm & DoC want to do a no-brainer sway of some excellent bush for some weed infested grazing land the farmer will do a way better job of looking after. But the S Court has said they do not have a legal way to do it so of course the law needs changing. That is not helping your mates at all. Labour would pass such a law and so would the Greens if they ever got power, which they will not, partly because people see them as just a ideological far left undemocratic bunch of arrogant busy bodies who lie with a straight face as they know they will never govern.
Once again you and GS are blinded by your bias into only seeing bad from one side.
Not that irrigation is bad of course. It is brilliant and has been the smart thing to do for 1000s of years. Hydro is great too and that is why NZ is 90% renewable & a sitter for wholesale change to electric cars. Just bought one.

David George said...

Bin there, done that... :(

Anonymous said...

Chris,
I would have thought a socialist like you would be in favour of giant, state controlled projects like Think Big. Would you have opposed them if they were proposed by Labour?
Or is it simply Rob/The Nats you object to?

On a tangential matter, The Greens are gret at congratulating themselfs about how much of our power is renewable - i.e hydroelectric - yet vehemently oppose any new dams!

David Stone said...

The Marsden Point refinery was a successful item of the Think Big progects. Most of the other petro based projects were abandoned by the incoming Rogernomic Labour government because they were directed at securing New Zealand's transport energy security, and that didn't fit with the globalist neoliberal ideology of that administration. This was in the midst of the "oil shock" that occurred in the 70s when opec was formed and woke up to the fact that the world was dependant on their oil and would pay infinitely more for it than they had been getting hitherto. This caused a huge wave of world wide inflation and financial chaos which inexplicably has been attributed to a failure of the Keynesian economic policies that had been in place, and provided the opportunity to sell neoliberalism to the world.
We only have democracy once every three years, to chose who is going to make and change the rules. Once in power they cad do or undo as they please. They make the law.
D J S

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous at 15:41

The new dams are all about intensifying dairy, you do get that yeah? With more dairy in the wrong places (soil types are very important in this) the amount of leeching of nitrates, phosphates, other fertilizers, sprays and stock effluent will fuck the rivers/waterways, you do get that yeah? pretty simple really and as displayed in the Bay during the Ruataniwha debates the current nitrate leeching levels are already Too Much.......... more intensive dairy will fuck the waterways/Tukituki faster than the current process, you do get that yeah?

As to electricity, we need to think about more distributed generation (solar panels etc on every new build) and regulation (yes the R word) which makes us build more efficient homes that use LESS so we don't need $billons invested in more large scale generating capacity and distribution systems (lines).

Peter Skelton said...

You have made two serious errors in this article Chris. The first one relates to the Court of Appeal. That Court did not make a decision about the Clyde Dam. The decision was made by the Planning Tribunal (for-runner of the Environment Court) and it was that decision that was overturned by the Clyde Dam Empowering Act. I was one of the Judges in the Planning Tribunal whose decision to refuse consent was so overturned.

Secondly it is simply not true that Commissioners were appointed to replace Councillors at Ecan because the the Regional Council baulked at increasing dairy cow numbers. Practically all the irrigation for increased dairy farming in Canterbury had been consented by the time Commissioners were appointed and in fact Commissioners have put the brakes on by imposing stringent nitrogen loss limits that did not exist before 2010.Happy to discuss but please get the facts right in future.

Professor Peter Skelton
Former Environment Court Judge and Ecan Commissioner

Chris Trotter said...

I stand corrected, Professor Skelton.

In my defence, however, I would say that my version of events is the one carried on practically all the NZ history websites.

As for ECan - once again the public narrative differs considerably from your own.

I am not disputing your version, merely pointing out that it is not the version the public has been relying on since 2010.

Clearly, a case for better journalism all 'round!

My thanks for your timely intervention in this story.