Southern MPs in local derby on water policy

Rachel Brooking and Penny Simmonds (below) trade questions, and occasionally answers, on fresh...
Rachel Brooking and Penny Simmonds (below) trade questions, and occasionally answers, on fresh water policy. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT TV
It is Tuesday afternoon and all fans of Parliament are tuning in to watch Question Time.

Most are there for Q2, the Rt Hon Chris Hipkins to the prime minister, while others are hanging out for Q4, the Hon Grant Robertson to the minister of finance.

Not "Southern Say" though.

Rather like its author’s teenage music tastes, "Southern Say" eschews hit records and is much more interested in the obscurities section of Question Time.

More specifically Q11, the Hon Rachel Brooking to the minister for the environment, the type of question all the hipsters care about.

That minister is, of course, National Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds, meaning the South retains a "local derby" in the House, following a succession of portfolio square-offs in the last term between the now sadly departed pair David Clark and Michael Woodhouse.

Ms Brooking wanted to know if Ms Simmonds agreed with the objectives of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020; and if not, why not?

This matters because all three parties in the coalition campaigned on easing freshwater management standards to various degrees, and Labour (and the Greens for that matter) would like streams and lakes to be potable and swimmable — which is why they introduced the policy statement in the first place.

Ms Simmonds told the House both she and the coalition were committed to "improving freshwater quality for the benefit of all New Zealanders by ensuring a sustainable and balanced approach that works towards improving the environmental outcomes for our waterways" ... which, as Labour’s deputy shadow leader of the House Duncan Webb pointed out, did not exactly answer the question.

Speaker Gerry Brownlee agreed, asking Ms Simmonds to "have another crack at it".

For take two, Ms Simmonds said the government considered that to have an enduring and sustainable solution "there needs to be a balanced approach which recognises the interests of all water users".

Which did not satisfy Mr Speaker either, who suggested to Ms Simmonds that while her answer might be an outcome of consulting on the policy statement, that it in no way shed any light on whether she actually agreed with its objectives.

Ms Simmonds finally, begrudgingly, revealed the government did not agree with the "hierarchy of objectives" and that’s why they wanted to replace the policy statement.

Which, not unnaturally, prompted Ms Brooking to ask what parts of the hierarchy she did not like, and were they the bits about prioritising the health and wellbeing of water bodies and freshwater ecosystems, or the health needs of people who might want to drink that water?

"Well, I think I have answered it," Ms Simmonds, somewhat dubiously, replied

"... the coalition government is committed to improving freshwater quality for the benefit of all New Zealanders".

After a bit more fruitless sparring, Ms Brooking tried to ask one last supplementary question, but her call was almost missed by the speaker.

"Oh, sorry, Dr Rachel — the Hon Rachel Brooking," Mr Brownlee said.

"Yes, not a doctor.

"Thank you, Mr Speaker," Ms Brooking said, before moving on to get absolutely nowhere when asking about what role local and district councils might play in all of this.

Undeterred, Ms Brooking was back for more the next day, on the same subject, asking once more if Ms Simmonds would not prioritise the objective of health needs of people over the commercial use of water.

"We have indicated that we would be looking for a balanced approach that would be more enduring and more sustainable, and therefore that consultation process will be with all stakeholders to ascertain all interests in fresh water," Ms Simmonds replied, demonstrating that although it is early days, she has already mastered the ministerial art of using a lot of words to say very little.

All in all, it was a bit of a rubbish week for Ms Brooking, who took numerous calls as she tried, unsuccessfully, to repel the barbarians from repealing an RMA consenting Bill she had done much work to pass in the previous Parliament.

Performance review

New Zealand First Lawrence list MP Mark Patterson was naturally a touch nervous in the House on Wednesday as he answered his first parliamentary question as minister for rural communities.

He perhaps offered a bit too much when asked by colleague Jamie Arbuckle about what recent reports the minister had seen.

"Hon Mark Patterson, that was a very long answer," Mr Speaker chided.

"It was a good one, though," Mr Patterson replied, to much laughter.

"Well, not necessarily.

"There was a bit of superfluous stuff in there.

"You could do better."

Great expectations

New Waitaki MP Miles Anderson got the job of asking Finance Minister Nicola Willis to big up her many minis-Budget at Thursday’s Question Time, and got more than he bargained for.

Grant Robertson was lying in wait with an old quote from Mr Anderson about when tax cuts might be introduced, and wondered what message Ms Willis might have for Mr Anderson? A ringing endorsement, to rousing cheers from the National benches, as it happens.

"My message for Mr Anderson is congratulations on winning your fine seat. You are going to be a fine representative, and I believe you will be someone who will stand up for farmers, the productive economy, those who run tourism operations, and those who create jobs and incomes in this country, so keep up the good work."

Season’s greetings

Act New Zealand Queenstown list MP Todd Stephenson was perhaps a touch too full of seasonal cheer on Thursday, kicking off Question 8 with a hearty "Thank you, Mr Speaker, and merry Christmas".

"Thanks very much, merry Christmas to you too, Todd," Mr Brownlee replied.

"Are we going to go around the whole House, because it could take a while?"

"Just a special merry Christmas for you, Mr Speaker," Mr Stephenson replied, before hurriedly asking his patsy question to party leader David Seymour about pseudoephedrine.

And with that, Parliament was done for the year, but not "Southern Say". We will be back next Saturday for a look back at the southern political year.