Vigil ECan Canterbury

“Vigil” for restoration of democracy and clean water in Canterbury

On a grey and chilly spring day, Canterbury artist and writer Sam Mahon, sculptor Alison Erickson and friends erected a beautiful sculpture “Vigil” of Catherine Sintenie outside Environment Canterbury Regional Council’s (ECan’s) lavish new offices in central Christchurch.

Catherine Sintenie was a mother, musician, a mountaineer, a teacher and someone who cared deeply about nature, Canterbury’s rivers and the environment.  She died of breast cancer two years ago.

Catherine was a tireless advocate for Canterbury’s rivers, helping establish the Orari River Protection Society, speaking out about the need to stop agribusiness’ plunder of the region’s rivers and aquifers, and to restore healthy river flows for people and wildlife. She inspired people with her music and her love of life and nature – especially the rivers, lakes and mountains of the South Island back country.

As a teacher at a small South Canterbury school, Catherine was one of the first people to tell me about the impacts on children and local communities of dairying’s increasing dominance in South Canterbury. Children have to move schools frequently whenever their sharemilker or farm worker parents moved to a new dairy farm; disrupting their education, and weakening friendships and community networks. More and more transitory residents – there for only one or two milking seasons –weaken the glue which makes for neighbourly communities.

Resting on a polished and repaired concrete culvert washed up in Hurunui’s Waitohi River, Catherine now maintains her “Vigil” outside ECan seeking the restoration of a democratically elected council and a council committed to clean water.

Everywhere else in New Zealand citizens can vote to elect all members of their regional or unitary council. In Canterbury citizens can only elect seven of the 13 member ECan Regional Council.  The other six will be appointed by Ministers; two on the nomination of Ngai Tahu. Sam Mahon describes it as a “cartoon version of democracy.”

After voting closes on 8 October, Christchurch will have only four elected regional councillors. Previously there were eight. The gerrymandered constituency boundaries that the National Government has imposed mean each rural resident’s vote is worth more than a Christchurch resident’s vote.  Each Christchurch councillor will have to represent 90,000 voters. In contrast, South Canterbury’s single elected councillor will represent only around 60,000 voters. This gerrymandering gives the rural sector more influence.

By having six Government appointees at the ECan table National can continue to ensure ECan promotes National’s agenda of more irrigation and water takes, more intensive agriculture and  weak controls on land use. Last year, ECan chair, Dame Margaret Bazley wrote to the Selwyn District Council encouraging it to loan $8 million to Central Plains Water so CPW could proceed with stage two of its irrigation scheme.  This year irrigation company, Rangitata Diversion Race Ltd (RDR Ltd) Sam Mahon and Vigilproposes to take another 10 cumecs of water from the Rangitata River to store in big irrigation ponds. The public can make submissions on the water take; but not on the water pollution and nutrient leaching irrigating another 19,000 ha. will cause because ECan regards RDR Ltd as already having permission to do this.

Citizens want a strong and effective independent regulator in Environment Canterbury, not a weak agency which encourages and assists more irrigation and intensification. Under the appointed commissioners the proportion of rivers in Canterbury that are suitable for swimming has declined from 74 percent in 2010 to 64 percent.

As Sam Mahon says:

“ECan governance has artfully distorted the precepts of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy by creating the illusion of a collaborative process with regard to the breaking up and distribution of the commons. The ECan Act was judged by the New Zealand Law Society Rule of Law Committee to be repugnant to the rule of law. Yet it is on this flawed foundation that the present ECan is about to reinstall itself through a cartoon version of democracy. [David] Caygill and his fellow functionaries stole from Cathy, as they have stolen from all of us, our precious time. I am presenting this sculpture to stand as a reminder to the new council that they are the inheritors of promises made. Like Cathy we are impatient for them to be honoured.”

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