A couple of weeks ago, Nick Smith and the government decided to prolong the sham that is ECan until 2019. When announcing that there would be a “mixed government model”, he went on to say that democracy was “too risky” for Canterbury. Of course what he means is that if the governance was returned to the people who actually pay the rates at ECan, then they would probably elect a council that would try and place some restrictions on the unchecked expansion of dairying across Canterbury.

Smith and the government always say this this is about “water management”, and that the previous council was “dysfunctional”. It was dysfunctional inasmuch as it was made up of a mixture of rural and urban councillors who disagreed about how to proceed with the exponential expansion of dairying in the region that they were responsible for. The government used the Creech report to play on this idea of “dysfunction”, and said that they were installing commissioners to ensure that “water management” was handled smoothly. It is notable that Smith, Adams et al always say “water management” – meaning allocation, not “water quality”.

Smith insists that the commissioners were installed to fix the dysfunction and put a water management structure into place. He insists that they’re doing that job:

“I am yet to meet a single Cantabrian who will not tell me the commissioners have cleaned up one helluva mess.”

And yet, even with that narrow remit, and without the nuisance of elections and democracy, they actually aren’t doing it:

Environment Canterbury (ECan) will not meet some of its water management targets for 2015, a commissioner says … Targets for 2015 included making sure at least 80 per cent of river bathing sites were clean for recreation, significant wetlands were restored, and increasing the area of irrigated land in Canterbury and/or the reliability of irrigation … David Caygill, one of two ECan commissioners on the Canterbury Regional Water Management Committee, said ECan was “on track” with several targets and needed “to do more work” in other areas.

A major target for 2015 was setting water quality limits based on nutrient levels for all 10 water-management zones – a task assigned to zone committees, Caygill said. “We have got limits in place across the region as a whole but [with] the work of tailoring those limits to particular catchments . . . we’re about halfway there,” he said.

Ecan did not have the scientific resources available to set limits across all the catchments at the same time, and consultation was time consuming, Caygill said.

(my emphasis)

So the government sacked the council and gave “water management” as their reason, and yet here we are 5 years later and they’re only halfway there? Doesn’t that suggest that the commissioner-led ECan is … what’s the word I’m looking for here … dysfunctional?

Despite the volatility in the industry, dairy is pretty much the only economic remedy that National wants to prescribe. Here in Canterbury, they’ve decided that they need a bit more time, and so have pushed-out the inevitable backlash at the ballot box out until 2019, to give their dysfunctional commissioners a bit more time. It’s also a signal, in this drought year, for the most environmentally vandalous farmers to push for irrigation in the most inappropriate areas. Across the country, however, the environmental toll is becoming unavoidable, as this excellent post from Dave Hansford makes all too clear:

Under the terms of the Primary Growth Partnership, ag minister Nathan Guy wants primary sector export receipts to double in value by 2025. Given that they have already wrung monumental production increases from their properties – an average 57 per cent per hectare between 1992 and 2012 – that demand in critical markets like China has flattened, exchange rates routinely swing against them, and international dairy prices tumbled more than 50 per cent last year, the only practical thing left for dairy farmers to do is to stock more cows.

The Government, like some Harlem pusher, is doing everything it can to coax farmers into still more expansion. It has adopted fresh water quality standards so lax they would give the filthy, lifeless Yangtze a clean bill of health. It removed the obstacle of a democratically-elected regional council in Canterbury that was proceeding on water issues with a caution mandated by voters. Instead, it installed pro-irrigation, agri-business-friendly “commissioners.” It has devoted $35m of taxpayers’ money to facilitating irrigation schemes. It granted agriculture exemption from the Emissions Trading Scheme on what is unfolding as a perpetual basis.

We need to realise that we’ve reached the carrying capacity of our paddocks; we need to combine best-practice farming techniques with scientific research, rather than ignoring all the evidence that happens to be inconvenient for the government’s agenda. We should be trying to farm smarter, not just trying to stick a dairy cow on a plot of grass, no matter how suitable it might be. And most of off, we need the government to get out of our way and let us make our own decisions about land use in Canterbury. It is laughable that Key can stand up and insist that we are fighting for democracy in the Middle East, whilst at the same time scrapping suffrage at ECan to pursue the most naked economic agenda.