Gareth Morgan and TOP’s environmental policy a pick and mix assortment

When a new political party like Gareth Morgan‘s Opportunities Party (TOP) launches, its promoters obviously see a gap in the political line-up, an area where it can promote policies and actions that other parties aren’t. That’s why the environmental policy released by Gareth Morgan’s party released today is surprising. It’s a pick and mix of policies that the Green Party has been advocating for years.

While it’s good to have another party advocating for the environment, there isn’t anything really new here. I was looking for policy ideas that the Greens hadn’t thought of. There are a couple that we have considered and rejected because they are ineffective, or because the environment would be worse off in the long run.

TOP’s environmental policy has no coherent vision for how to shift Aotearoa/New Zealand to a more sustainable society and economy. It says that “TOP will advocate for a cohesive government vision on how we transition to sustainable land use.” Sorry, but that sounds more like the role of an environmental organisation seeking to influence government rather than one wanting to be in government and responsible for making decisions.

TOP is promoting tradeable pollution rights, similar to the Emissions Trading Scheme, when there’s little evidence that allowing polluters to trade the right to pollute will improve water quality and a high risk that tradeable pollution rights will make water and land use management more complicated. The Emissions Trading Scheme has greenhouse emissions trending up when we want them going down, so we hardly want its equivalent to prevent nitrates, sediment and other contaminants going into our rivers, oceans, soils and atmosphere.

Many of Gareth Morgan’s ideas are ones that the Greens have been working on for years. They include stronger bottom lines for water quality so that rivers are fit for swimming and not just wading; recognising that water is a community resource and charging irrigators and other users a resource rental for their use of it; putting a moratorium on further dairy intensification (the Greens have long said we have too many cows); and winding up Crown Irrigation Investments and its handouts for irrigators.

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The National Government’s weak National Policy Statement on freshwater, which tells regional councils that water only has to be clean enough to wade in, not swim, has meant regional councils haven’t needed to control intensive dairying and land uses that pollute our water.

TOP’s environmental policy puts a lot of faith in regional councils to improve freshwater despite their patchy performance to date and the widespread recognition that the lack of adequate and effective national policy direction from the central government has been one of the major failings of the Resource Management Act (RMA) in relation to water quality. In fact, TOP policy could actually open the way for polluters with big pocket books to pressure councils to lower standards further.

TOP have also copied our Taonga Levy, which we announced last year. This is a levy of an $8-14 on incoming tourists to help fund conservation and assist councils, especially smaller councils with tourism infrastructure.

TOP proposes planting erosion prone land. The Greens’ Climate Action Plan to protect the climate includes a commitment to more than a million hectares of new forest planting, targeting erosion-prone land where this is not at the expense of indigenous vegetation and natural landscapes.

Gareth Morgan’s support for controversial biodiversity offsets and the concept of “no net loss of natural capital” will allow precious areas of habitat for indigenous wildlife and quality landscapes to be traded away for development. Biodiversity offsets enable coal miners like Bathurst Resources, property developers and others to promise modest predator control in exchange for destroying irreplaceable landscapes and significant wildlife habitat. They are a recipe for continued loss of habitat for our precious indigenous plants and wildlife. Offsets make it much easier for the Department of Conservation and councils to never have to say “no” to development; even where impacts are severe. They can just point to whatever the developer has offered up instead.

The RMA was once important in ensuring that people can have a say on development affecting their neighborhoods and places they care about. Yet TOP is committed to “speedy resolution for developers”. Nick Smith and National’s ambition to speed up RMA processes for developers has reduced opportunities for public involvement and rights to appeal to the courts. Such changes in the controversial Resource Legislation Amendment Bill were widely criticised by submitters from Fonterra and airport authorities to Forest and Bird. Yet TOP’s approach to RMA “reform” seems similar to National’s with developer interests pre-eminent.

The policy rightly highlights the need for major changes in the way we use land to improve water quality – issues that have been at the heart of Green political action and advocacy for decades. Yet it lacks ambition for our oceans. It talks about planning and process rather than real initiatives to achieve healthy oceans and sustainable fisheries.

And one wonders whether TOP, like National, is already getting donations from big fishing companies. Its proposal to compensate the fishing industry whenever marine reserves are established contradicts long established law and strongly advantages the industry. It increases the industry’s property rights in fishing quota and risks the dollar costs of compensation preventing the establishment of new marine reserves. Even National has avoided promising financial handouts for the fishing industry in exchange for marine protection.