The public good



The recent sacking of Environment Canterbury and the dismembering of Water Conservation Orders in our province by Nick Smith puts me in mind of the celebrated West Pecos bar room lawyer, ‘judge’ Roy Bean. With a copy of the 1876 Revised Statutes of Texas in one hand and a six gun in the other, Roy became judge, jury and executioner during one of the most rampant land grabs in American history. 


The central plains of Canterbury is such an example where a private company has been given requiring authority over two hundred neighbouring properties; that is to say that whether they like it or not, land owners will be compelled to sell their land at market rates plus ten percent to the Central Plains Water company.


I asked Nick Smith recently how he, as a defender of private property rights, could support something like this; Nick answered that it was for the public good. Again, when I asked him if he realised that this developmental policy of his would result in turning small rural communities like mine into ‘the engine room of the ship of state,’ and opined that no one wanted to live in an engine room, he gave the same reply, It’s for the public good.


And of course, the public good is a noble refrain; it’s a very defendable sentiment and it has been employed by everyone from Thatcher to Den Shao Ping. But when you till the political dirt and plant modified laws designed to curb civil rights, it doesn’t matter what name you put to it, you cannot help but disturb the seeds of civil disobedience.


In 1999 on a slightly overcast October afternoon, farmer Pat Morrison stood against a green backdrop of rolling hills at the edge of the central plains and stared grimly down the barrel of a reporter’s camera. His eyes were crimped like shot-gun cartridges. ‘People power,’ he said, ‘that’s our best resource. It’s the only way we’ll beat them.’

That was ten years ago when Transwaste was proposing to create a dump above the central plains in the Waianiwaniwa valley. Pat didn’t like this proposition at all and he chaired a committee of farmers and environmentalists to defeat it.

However, it wasn’t entirely environmental passion or the sanctity of property rights that moved Pat Morrison.
He had another vision for the valley altogether; he wanted to dam it, fill it with water, and use it as a reservoir for the largest irrigation scheme in Canterbury. These days, as chair of Canterbury Plains Water, he sings the company song, and his brother farmers who stand to lose their property under government decree, find his tune a little off key.

But pragmatic law can compel people only so far. It is not hard to imagine Pat Morrison waking one day in the near future to find two hundred families of the central plains standing shoulder to shoulder in front of his bulldozers. In which event those grim features of his will crack into an unaccustomed grin as he recalls his own invocation; ‘People’s the only way we’ll beat them.’


Amanda Loeffen, manager of the proposed Hurunui irrigation scheme also invokes the public good when she assures us that her massive project to irrigate 40,000 hectares in our district will so enrich us that our children will want to stay here, that our health services will improve and that it will create more than 800 new jobs in the area. I asked her if she imagined we were all terribly lonely; after all, many of us came here for the very fact that the madding crowd was elsewhere. But by Amanda’s accounts you’d imagine this little village in which I have lived happily for nearly thirty years is impoverished, that everyone is walking around dressed in sackcloth and dragging carts behind them bearing the nearly dead.


While neighbouring dairy farm owners have grown very wealthy indeed, the intricate weave that ties rural communities like ours together has given way to individualism. There is a heads down culture among farmers now where paying off the conversion debt as soon as possible and cashing in on the consequent capital gain is their primary interest. There is little time left for the local theatre group, the football team, service clubs or the volunteer fire brigade. It’s every man for himself in dairy-land.


In nearby Culverden the physical landscape has changed markedly: Intricate threads of steel and tube droop across much of the plains in a dreary web, and where once the wind-break pines scratched the pastel skies of summer, the trees crouch now in diminishing hedgerows sporting a kind of rural short back and sides. On clear winter mornings skeins of mist rise from the wet fields to drift beneath a pale yolk of sun and, frankly, I wouldn’t want to live there.


Contrary to Loeffen’s claim that less than half the farmers signed up to her scheme will convert to dairy, her economic analyst, Dr Caroline Saunders, finds otherwise. She has based her estimate of eight hundred and twenty-two new jobs for the area on a model of 65% dairy conversion and the remainder in high value arable production. However, Amanda may be quite correct when she states that many of her present shareholders do not wish to convert. They won’t not need to. They’ll leave that to someone else. With water piled up at the gate, farms will immediately leap to near three times their current value, and under the weight of such an economic windfall it would be madness not to exchange the harrows for a semi-somnolent retirement on the shores of lake Wanaka.

Water is a golden escape ticket out of a community where the family farm is becoming an oddity, where no one’s child can afford to buy the farm they were raised on. As these families leave, as the corporates move in, they take with them the stories and histories and memories that bind us.


A more fundamental issue than that of community is the threat this scheme poses to a unique New Zealand waterway. The irrigators plan to build a dam on the south branch of the Hurunui and a weir on one of the most beautiful lakes of the south island. It is a scheme that teeters at the very edge of environmental and engineering capability and their own engineers, Riley Consultants, admit that even in the best circumstances a lake on the south branch will run dry every ten years. Given that it would take two years to refill, a south branch dam could never provide surety for a project of this size and lakeSumner would have to be raised as a reserve.


But recently, at a meeting of major stakeholders, Mike Cuddihy of DoC made it very clear that although he was prepared to compromise over the south branch, Lake Sumner was not up for negotiation. For a moment there was an uncomfortable hiatus as the irrigators squirmed in their seats. Then one of their directors, Fendalton lawyer Lindsay Lloyd, made the foll owing remarkable repost; 'Well that means you've just taken half the lollies out of the lolly bag… and that leaves only half a bag of lollies to share among the rest of us.' The room was stunned. Anyone able to reduce something this precious to such tawdry tender could only vaguely comprehend the intangible values of this river.


And it is this attitude to our national treasury that spurred Fish and Game to apply for a conservation order on the Hurunui headwaters. The application drew many hundreds of submissions and millions of dollars were spent in the process as fishermen, kayakers and the tangitawhenua pitted themselves against the government-subsidised irrigation lobby and the artisans of desk-top-study. The common man, woman and child gave their testimony in the common tongue before a bank of commissioners while the usual phalanx of expert witnesses performed their mercenary duty to disagree.


When the dust settled, a verdict of give and take was handed down; a recommendation to protect lake Sumner but to leave the south branch open for development, albeit with due regard to the environment. And, of course, the judgment was immediately appealed by both sides.


But before any appeal could be heard, Nick Smith stepped in and executed his coup de tete. Actually it was quite a number of tetes: He removed Ecan, filleted the RMA, marginalised the collaborative Canterbury Water Management Strategy, and singled Canterbury out for special legislation which serves to unbutton conservation orders in favour of economic development. Thus Fish and Game, Forest and Bird, every submitter to the WCO, everyone who submitted in good faith to the Natural Resources Regional Plan and every democratically elected member of Environment Canterbury along with their constituents were deprived of a commodity that should be enshrined in any civilized society; the right to be heard without prejudice.

‘I may not agree with what you have to say,’ wrote Voltaire, ‘but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’


The sacking of Environment Canterbury created a dangerous precedent and old combatants now stand side by side, united in their outrage that central government considers this vast province does not have the wit to manage its own affairs. In my opinion, Nick Smith has made one of the gravest mistakes of his political career.


When Portia, the most famous legal mind in English literature, was petitioned by Bassanio to do a little wrong for the greater good, she answered:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    


           ‘There is no power in Venice

            Can alter a decree established;

            ‘Twill be recorded for a precedent;

            And many an error, by the same example,

            Will rush into the state: it cannot be.’


And it would be well to remind Smith of the American philosopher Henri Thoreau’s contention that law and morality do not necessarily go hand in hand. That when we show respect for bad law we are daily made the agents of injustice.


Last year, in a quiet annex of a popular inner city café, I met with Amanda Loeffen to discus her plans of enriching the little village in which I live. I had bought with me one of the many plastic bottles that she distributed around the tables at her last community presentation. Pasted upon the bottle was a coloured picture of the north branch of the Hurunui, a gorgeous stretch of water uninhibited by any dam or weir. Emblazoned across this image were the words Water for our future. It was a simple message. A more complex one, however, was printed along the bottom edge of the label in letters too small to catch the casual eye. It read Bottled by Waimak corporate water.

I pointed it out to Amanda. ‘What you seem to be saying,’ I said, ‘is that contrary to the message implied on this label, the water in this bottle is not from the Hurunui. It also suggests that any ownership of water has more to do with corporations than community.’

Amanda nodded and for the first time during our interview she smiled. ‘That was a mistake, wasn’t it.’ She said. I agreed that it was. But I’ve never been quite sure if Amanda was regretting the fine print because it gave a wrong impression, or because it gave a right one.