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Eugenie Sage questions the Minister for the Environment on the state of the environment

EUGENIE SAGE to the Minister for the Environment: What new policy initiatives, if any, will he be making in response to the Environment Aotearoa 2015 report released yesterday in the areas of fresh water, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions?

Hon Dr NICK SMITH (Minister for the Environment): It is early days, and the Ministers and policy officials received the report only yesterday, but we have a very active programme in all three key areas. On fresh water, we are planning regulatory changes around the microvertebrate index, the fencing of waterways, and a new clean-up fund. The Land and Water Forum is finalising recommendations on these. On biodiversity, we are ramping up efforts with programmes like Battle for our Birds and the War on Weeds. The new Threatened Species Ambassador will also help this work. On climate change, we are working on new initiatives around electric cars and strengthening the emissions trading scheme. Obviously, on this issue, the Paris negotiations are crucial, and New Zealand will be taking a very active part.

Eugenie Sage: Among those regulatory changes, will the Minister improve the national policy statement objective A1 for water quality from a secondary contact standard, “suitable for boating and wading”, to “suitable for swimming”?

Hon Dr NICK SMITH: No, and I will tell the member why. Even before human beings arrived in New Zealand, not every single body of water in New Zealand was swimmable. It is impractical to suggest that somehow we can override even nature. It is also true that during significant storm events, when there is a large amount of pollution introduced to the system, there are times when it is not practical to be able to have every body of water as swimmable. What we are committed to is an improvement in water standards, and I am concerned about that member’s repeated exaggeration about the areas in which it is unsafe to swim in New Zealand, because in the vast bulk of areas, it is perfectly safe.

Eugenie Sage: Is the Minister, effectively, saying that having rivers that are fit only for wading and boating, and not for swimming, will allow the dairy industry room to expand further?

Hon Dr NICK SMITH: No. What I am saying is that the member’s proposition that Parliament can somehow pass a rule and magically make every body of water in New Zealand safe to swim in is false. Even before human beings arrived in this country, there were bodies of water that were not safe to swim in, and this Government is not going to impose regulations and laws that are impractical, as the Green Party would attempt to do.

Eugenie Sage: Does he stand by the Prime Minister’s statement that the environment could handle more dairy farming, even though the Environment Aotearoa 2015 report says at page 10 that nitrogen levels are high enough to trigger algal blooms in 49 percent of monitored river sites?

Hon Dr NICK SMITH: That is where the member does not understand the variation across New Zealand. In an area like Taupō, where there needs to be limits on nitrogen, we are actually 3 years ahead of schedule, and it is not possible for new dairy farms in that catchment. There are other catchments where nitrogen limits are not needed and where there is expansion for dairying, and that is where the Green Party policy of a blanket ban on any more dairy farms in New Zealand does not make sense.

Scott Simpson: How does the Environment Aotearoa 2015 report released yesterday match up with the Government’s ambition of being a world leader in responsible management of our oceans?

Hon Dr NICK SMITH: The report is very encouraging and shows a decline in the number of fish stocks that are subject to overfishing, from 25 percent to 14 percent in the past 5 years. The global average is 28 percent of stocks, indicating that our fisheries are some of the best-managed in the world. The report also notes that seabird bycatch over the past 5 years has almost halved, and since then, we have subsequently announced the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, which will be the largest no-take area anywhere in the world, showing how this Government is stepping up environmentally to the challenge of better ocean management.

Eugenie Sage: Will the Minister push to strengthen New Zealand’s emissions reduction target when the report also says that ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide emissions “poses the greatest threat to our marine habitats”?

Hon Dr NICK SMITH: New Zealand’s climate change ambition of a 30 percent reduction by 2030 is a big ask. What this Government will not do is what the previous Labour Government did with big, bold targets of carbon neutrality at a time when emissions were going through the roof. Actually, there has been less growth in greenhouse gas emissions under this Government than under any Government, and the emissions trading scheme and other measures such as, for instance, the announcement to close down New Zealand’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, the Huntly power station, show the progress that we are making.

Eugenie Sage: Why has he allowed the proposed National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity to languish since mid-2011 when the report says that the extinction risk for 42 land species worsened in the 6 years from 2005 to 2011?

Hon Dr NICK SMITH: What the report identifies is that the biggest risk to New Zealand’s native plants and birds is actually pests, and that is why this Government has launched the biggest pest control programme ever. Rather than 50,000 hectares per year being controlled with poisons like 1080, it will see that growing to 500,000 hectares—a huge lift. My question to the Green Party is: why do they oppose poisons rather than actually back the tools that will ensure that our species survive?

Eugenie Sage: Given that the biggest threat is pests, will he support a real increase in funding for the Department of Conservation in Budget 2016, rather than another cut, given that 81 percent of our land birds, 72 percent of our freshwater fish, 27 percent of our marine—

Mr SPEAKER: Order! Bring the question to a conclusion.

Eugenie Sage: —mammals, and all of our frogs face extinction?

Hon Dr NICK SMITH: Budget measures will be resolved when the Budget is read next year. But I would say that with the amount of actual practical work that is being done, with the initiative that Maggie Barry took with the programme for Kiwis this year, the new Endangered Species Foundation Ambassadors, and the huge lift in the amount of pest control work that is being delivered, this Government is more interested in terms of the things that will work than just spending money willy-nilly, as is the practice of that party.

Meka Whaitiri: When will he accept that the decision to ignore Judge Sheppard’s national policy statement on water quality is a primary reason why, under his watch, water quality continues to get worse?

Hon Dr NICK SMITH: The member is misinformed. Judge Sheppard never had a national policy statement. What I would point out to that member is that Labour promised a national policy statement on fresh water for 9 years straight and did nothing, and it was a National Government that put in place such a policy statement.