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Hobbs and former ORC chief executive Graeme Martin give Bruce Munro irreconcilable accounts. But both suggest more drama to come.
The guillotine, when it dropped, was noisy but efficient.
Marian Hobbs, with 12 years’ experience in Parliament, six of them as Environment Minister (1999-2005), had been chairwoman of the Otago Regional Council for less than nine months when she was dumped last Wednesday by an unequivocal vote of no confidence.
At the heart of it all was the issue that has dogged the Otago Regional Council for decades. Water.
Otago has spectacular rivers and lakes spread across diverse landscapes coursing from mountain to sea. They have become increasingly important to Otago livelihoods and under greater pressure from the same.
For three decades, the ORC has been mandated to manage the quality and quantity of this resource.
But in October last year, an independent investigation of council’s freshwater management reported back to Environment Minster David Parker that the council’s entire water planning framework was not fit for purpose and that the council had suffered from years of under-investment in science and hydrology.
The key question driving the report by Prof Peter Skelton was whether the ORC would have the wherewithal to make good decisions on the 356 deemed permits - relics of the gold rush that over-allocate the available water in many of Otago’s river catchments - before they expire on October 1, 2021. Not likely, Prof Skelton told the Minister.
Most of the councillors kept their eyes on Michael Laws, who was chairing the extraordinary meeting, as he read out the result of the vote that was the climax to months of growing acrimony around this table of representatives elected to manage Otago’s land, air and water resources.
Nine votes to two, with Hobbs abstaining. No-one was surprised. Least of all Hobbs.
But her supporters and those concerned about the environmental consequences of her removal made their feelings known with boos and hisses and calls of "shame on you". Emotions were running high, angry statements made, calls for quiet ignored. The meeting was adjourned for half an hour until tensions were only simmering and Andrew Noone could be elected the new regional council chairman.
How did it get to this? It is a crucial question, particularly given that there is almost universal agreement that only eight years ago the regional council was tracking reasonably well towards water quality and quantity goals.
He, of course, is likely to say that. But it is also, largely, the view of others; some of whom were around then and some in relevant roles now.
Dr Selva Selvarajah was the ORC’s director of resource management when he left after a dozen years to set up a private consultancy, in 2013. Martin had a simple but effective approach to water management, Selvarajah says.
"He didn’t like unnecessary bureaucracy," Selvarajah recalls.
Before and after Martin’s tenure at the ORC, Niall Watson was at the helm of the Otago Fish and Game Council. When he retired in 2018, Watson was critical of regional and central government handling of freshwater. But his recent assessment of Martin’s role was that he was "ahead of the game on water quality" although "didn’t do enough to address over-allocation of the water resource".
Martin’s response is that work on the allocation of water permits had begun and that in his last meeting with the council he told those gathered that their "next urgent priority" should be developing an internal policy on how they would handle irrigation and water-use consents.
"That was the end of October, 2012. It’s still missing in action," Martin says.
"That’s OK if you have the monitors and scientists and the recording," Hobbs says.
But in the years following Martin’s retirement "there was very little of that", she adds.
If there is broad consensus that the management of Otago’s water was always going to be fraught but was flowing in the right direction under Martin’s reign, the same is true of the opposite outcome under the next chief executive.
"There are staff out there, people working as consultants, who were fired or removed or downsized by Peter Bodeker," Hobbs says.
"I don’t know the man, don’t know the reasons. But it’s led to a complete lack of trust because there are people who were forced out who can’t stand the ORC."
Bodeker, who now works for the Ministry of Primary Industries, sees it quite differently.
Processes were put in place for farmers to replace mining permits with Resource Management Act consents; a water quality programme was piloted on Otago Peninsula; and, "on the contrary" the number and quality of staff was "bolstered", Bodeker says.
Martin, however, watching from his lifestyle block near Earnscleugh, says Bodeker, the wider ORC executive group and the elected councillors all failed to perform during that period.
"From 2013 to 2016, the council grew increasingly absent from information awareness, legal awareness and community engagement. They created a vacuum and a deficit," he says.
Here is where the agreement between the ousted chairwoman and the retired chief executive ends. What has transpired during the past three and a-half years, who is at fault and how it will all shakedown — on every point they have irreconcilable narratives. Except for the prospect of a government-appointed commissioner.
The concept that has hampered Otago’s progress on water management for decades, Hobbs says, is a belief in "Otago exceptionalism".
During her nine months as chair, she was repeatedly told "we are different".
"‘We are different’ means ‘we don’t sit under central government’ and ‘we ignore National Policy Statements (NPS)’," Hobbs translates.
But that disregard of the will of central government is a fantasy, she says. When the sea-change Resource Management Act came into force in 1991, Parliament chose to empower the newly established regional councils to carry out its intentions regarding natural resources, including water.
So, the ORC cannot choose its own path on water management, Hobbs says. Failing to give effect to the various updates of the National Policy Statements on Freshwater Management — the council’s water plan does not give effect to the 2017 NPS, let alone the 2020 update, and is unlikely to do so in the next seven years — is simply not an option.
On top of that, Hobbs says, there is the issue of some farmers and some regional councillors trying to delay work on water. In particular, she means the deemed permits that, on paper, over-allocate the water take from most of Otago’s 100-odd catchments. The size of the water take in Otago has led to about 75% of the available flow in the Manuherikia River being used for irrigation and stock water and has resulted in altered flows, eco-systems and fish habitats in some other streams and rivers.
Some consider the deemed permits to be a right, Hobbs says. And the requirement to "use it or lose it" has exacerbated the intensification of dairying in Central Otago, which has had a negative impact on water flows and water quality.
"It’s been ignored and left because people have said, this is our land and we have the right to do whatever we like on it."
In Hobbs’ version of events, the regional council’s current chief executive, Sarah Gardner, is one of the country’s top planners and has been working hard to get on top of the ORC water mess since her appointment in late-2017.
"Sarah’s been fabulous to work with.
"She has remodelled her entire leadership team — she’s got leadership skills — and they have brought in a number of scientists."
The main thrust of Hobbs’ account is supported by Watson.
Water quality in Otago has deteriorated because of land-use intensification, the former Fish and Game boss says. The current stoush that led to Hobbs’ overthrow, he says, is between a pro-irrigator group and a pro-environment group.
"I think that’s the essence of the politics at the moment. It’s about those who support the current deficient water plan and want to see it used to reallocate water to people who have mining privileges, versus those who want to adjust the plan to make it more environmentally friendly."
The positive turnaround Hobbs sees at the ORC during the past three years, however, could not be further from the truth, Martin says.
The deficit created during Bodeker’s term has become "a devastating crisis", Martin believes.
"The change, because of style and process and how consultants have been used, has compounded things significantly.
"You’ll see that in the series of lurches everywhere.
"What we’ve seen since the election is, from that executive and some of the council, again, a spastic-type reaction rather than thoughtful thinking, careful but with haste."
It is the council that has been dragging the chain on water, not farmers, Martin says.
In his version of events, people with an interest in Otago water, from farmers and hunters to environmental groups, have all been repeatedly telling a deaf regional council that it needs to do more, do it better and do it quicker.
"Hydrological background work, water quality background work, it hasn’t been being developed systematically over several years, and it’s apparent right to this day that they still haven’t got it," Martin says.
"Community groups and consultants are way ahead of the council.
"They have failed to do good leadership from the front and they’ve failed to guide from the rear."
Gardner, the current chief executive, was asked by The Weekend Mix whether she agreed with Martin’s assessment that there had been a failure of leadership and that unthinking actions have resulted in a "devastating crisis".
"I applaud the commitment of staff and their capability to progress all of our work,” Gardner says.
Martin dismisses as nonsense the notion of a group of councillors abetting irrigators to delay addressing deemed permits. The September, 2018, "rebellion" was a case of a majority of councillors finally listening to what people had long been telling them, he says.
Two years ago, in mid-September, councillors voted six to five against plans to set minimum flows, and then later set allocation limits, for the Arrow, Cardrona and Manuherikia catchments. Instead, they voted in favour of doing minimum flow work and NPS work concurrently.
"Sufficient councillors suddenly heard what the community was saying," Martin recalls.
"That’s when some councillors revolted against where the policy and executive leadership were heading.
"This was in fact the first breath of fresh air."
Their stance was vindicated by the Skelton report, he says quoting from it.
"‘I consider the withdrawal was a responsible course of action to take, given the scientific uncertainty which is now being addressed’."
Martin says the recent disharmony within the ORC, including Hobbs’ removal, was the fall-out from the groundswell of dissent that surfaced in 2018.
His view of events is backed up by regional councillor, former mayor, MP and media personality Michael Laws.
Passing the September, 2018, motion changed the equation, Laws says.
"It essentially said, you can’t ignore the National Policy Statements any more," he says.
"There was a review by the current chief executive that came back and said, well, actually you are right, we are not in tune at all.
"That’s been one of the great problems of the ORC. It has been so Dunedin-based it really hasn’t understood the areas it is meant to be providing the plans for."
The two camps sound like they are reading entirely unrelated maps.
What happens next at the ORC also sounds dramatically different depending on who is talking.
Hobbs is promising to use the extra time afforded by her reduced responsibilities to "build a resistance" to those farming groups and their supporters who she says are trying to delay dealing with water issues.
"I think it’s been a shock to some of the councillors; they didn’t realise how strongly water issues are understood and valued by Dunedin people. I think people in smaller communities are often quite dismissive of cities."
She also plans to mobilise young people to stand for the regional council.
"Young people don’t realise that the Otago Regional Council is the environmental council; that most of the decisions that actually affect them on the ground are made there."
Hobbs has no intention of being cowed.
"Yes, I am stroppy.
"But if they think I have been stroppy ... free of being in the chair I will keep to the standing orders but I will hold things to account."
Other councillors might perceive Hobbs as disloyal to them, but her loyalty lies with water, she says.
"For me, it isn’t about people, it is about the environment."
Martin says the immediate next step for the ORC has to be what it has always been, but has failed to take.
"I’ve been before council a number of times now since 2014 and repeatedly said your community needs a good council and you need to be with your community. It hasn’t happened yet," Martin says.
"It’s damaging to Otago and to the regional council.
"We need enormous haste now."
Deemed permits are just one issue. But they typify the approach needed, he says.
"I think in all the decisions we will see enhancements for aquatic species and a reduction in water availability for irrigators.
"But there are ways of working through these things. And it’s got to work for society at large.
"You have to consider where individuals’ interests might be deprived. It’s very important.
"It’s a journey of cohesion, it’s a journey of information, and it’s not quickly done. But the ORC has yet to lead one successfully."
Surprisingly, the divergent narratives meet again at the end — with the prospect of the Otago Regional Council’s elected councillors being dumped and a government-appointed commissioner installed to sort the mess.
Parker told The Weekend Mix a commissioner is not being considered.
Long term issues should be addressed by recommendations in the Skelton report, the Minister says.
"In regard to current issues on the council, the internal council business is a matter for the council," Parker added.
Nick Smith was Environment Minister when Environment Canterbury (Ecan) councillors were sacked and commissioners installed in 2010.
Smith did a second stint as Environment Minister from 2014 to 2017.
He told The Weekend Mix his perception of the ORC during that period was that it was "a strong performer, relative to others".
The grounds for replacing an elected council with commissioners would be "systematic and chronic non-performance", Smith says.
If Noone, as the new chairman, agrees to significantly slow progress on water issues, a commissioner is likely to be the result, Hobbs predicts.
Dysfunction and more delays would be sufficient grounds, she believes.
"I can’t speak for David, the current Minister. I’m only talking from my experience as a Minister."
Martin, in his experience, thinks the threshold has already been crossed.
"And if not, it is perilously close," he says. "But we have to remember, commissioners can only be good commissioners if they have a good knowledge of the region and have a capable executive and staff who know the region and know the law as well.
"So, more than just commissioners are needed if you go that route."