Southern Say: Simmonds dispenses with rights Bill

Penny Simmonds speaks at parliament on Wednesday. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Penny Simmonds speaks at parliament on Wednesday. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The James Shaw farewell tour kicked into high gear this week, as Parliament debated - and rejected - his New Zealand Bill of Rights (Right to Sustainable Environment) Amendment Bill at first reading.

The former Green Party co-leader was under no illusion that the government would back his member’s Bill - which would have seen the right to "a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment" included in Bill of Rights - at first reading, but he had every intention of going down swinging.

So, why should a Bill that had no prospect of success and which was swiftly voted down be of interest to us in the South? For a number of reasons, not the least of them being that the second speaker was Invercargill National MP Penny Simmonds, who is also minister for the environment.

Ms Simmonds has not made many pronouncements about nature as of yet: firstly, she has been overshadowed by the dramas in her disability issues portfolio, and secondly because the main issue she had faced in the portfolio so far is the role which she has - or has not - played in the Fast Track consenting legislation. More on that shortly.

Ms Simmonds tried to let Mr Shaw down gently, offering him sincere well wishes for the future and adding that the government remained "steadfast" in its commitment to environment sustainability.

"However, we must approach this endeavour with a blend of pragmatism as well as caution," she continued, "because our beliefs lie in attaining environmental objectives through intelligent and efficient measures that use the best science and the best technology to nurture economic growth rather than impede it."

In other words, no.

More specifically, Ms Simmonds feared that such a right would create an unmanageable ambiguity as lawyers sought to define just what a "clean, healthy, and sustainable environment" was, and that in doing so could either weaken existing environmental protection laws, or create inconsistencies with them.

If you want someone in Parliament to address such issues former environmental lawyer Rachel Brooking is your woman and fortuitously the Labour Dunedin MP was up next.

After confessing to not being "a huge fan of rights and rights legislation", Ms Brooking conceded that there was a risk passing an amendment such as Mr Shaw’s Bill of Rights could open the floodgates for other "rights" to be added to it.

That said, she was still going to vote for the proposal as her beloved Natural and Built Environment Act had just been repealed, that very day the Department of Conservation had announced 130 job losses, and a variety of decarbonisation initiatives had been scrapped.

"We need everything that we can possibly do, every tool in the tool box, to remind people about how important our environment is to us, to the economy and to future generations," she said.

Just not this tool, as Mr Shaw’s handy legislative fix-it device was done away with.

Parliament’s business committee, where all parties decide how the business of the House will proceed, had obligingly moved Mr Shaw’s Bill up the Order Paper so that he could speak on it before leaving Parliament.

That date was set this week, and he will give his valedictory on May 1. This is the greater significance for the South, because with Mr Shaw’s departure day set the next Green MP on the list - its Dunedin candidate Francisco Hernandez - can start packing his bags for Wellington.

But the House was not done with Ms Simmonds this week. The following day in Question Time, Green list MP Lan Pham wanted to know how she was feeling.

"Is she concerned that having a minister for the environment outside Cabinet, and no environmental cabinet committee, means that considerations about the environmental impact of laws and policies are not being given proper weight in the government’s decision making?" Ms Pham asked.

A guarded "no" was the reply, as Ms Simmonds was confident that a range of ministers were interested in environmental factors.

Ms Pham was not so sure, and asked if Ms Simmonds was at all concerned that she had been left out of the decision-making process for the Fast-track Approvals Bill.

Now Ms Simmonds is a new minister, but not so wet behind the ears than she was going to let on if she was.

"Not at all," she purred.

"I’ve been very involved in the process, and we are consulting widely and, as we work together as a cabinet."

The vanishing question trick

High confusion on Wednesday as Taieri Labour MP Ingrid Leary sought to question Mental Health Minister Matt Doocey on the fate of the Suicide Prevention Office ... except her question had somehow been lodged as being to the associate minister of health. Which Mr Doocey also happens to be, but with that hat on he has no responsibility for the office.

Mr Doocey tried to pre-empt the issue by taking a point of order before Ms Leary spoke, to say he was happy to answer the question regardless. In the ensuing kerfuffle it turned out that someone - and no-one knew who - had transferred the question from Mr Doocey to Mr Doocey.

"Well, we could have a massive inquest here, or someone could seek leave for the question to be directed to the minister for mental health," Speaker Gerry Brownlee sighed.

To everyone’s relief, Mr Doocey then sought leave to have his question transferred to himself, and Ms Leary could proceed.

Rachel Brooking (right), model. PHOTO: FACEBOOK
Rachel Brooking (right), model. PHOTO: FACEBOOK

Career opportunities

We’re confident that Ms Brooking is not planning a career change, but congrats to her on making her catwalk debut as an iD Fashion week model on Saturday.