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.