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Environmental management in New Zealand

Environmental management in New Zealand was extensively reformed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today's environmental policies and laws reflect the concerns of both the New Zealand public and the global community. The public's concerns are expressed through the environmental planning processes, including the granting of resource consents in each region and district of New Zealand, through frequent consultation between environmental agencies and interest groups, and through issue-specific campaigns by New Zealand's many environmental lobby groups. Global concerns are expressed through international discussions which often result in treaties or other agreements requiring us to adopt or modify our policies or laws in some way.

Prior to the 1990s, New Zealand's approach to environmental management was piecemeal and incremental (OECD, 1981). From the 1940s on, as environmental awareness seeped slowly into the nation's consciousness, laws were passed, advisory bodies were set up, and management responsibilities were allocated to various government departments, local authorities or special purpose boards, councils or committees. The first attempt at coordinated environmental management was the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Act 1941 which established local catchment boards to coordinate soil and water conservation across whole water catchments which spanned several towns, boroughs or counties. This approach of using natural boundaries as the management unit was a world first, and many nations are looking to implement this today. A supervisory national committee was also established, the National Water and Soil Conservation Organisation (NWASCO) which was serviced by the Soil and Water Division of the Ministry of Works and Development (MWD)-the government department in charge of public works, such as road, bridge and hydro dam construction. Government subsidies were supplied via MWD to the Catchment boards to assist local landowners to carry out flood protection works, river control work, drainage and soil conservation works. This division later had a special unit that carried out research into water and soil systems and management techniques.

In the 1950s and 1960s a number of new laws, organisations and responsibilities were introduced, beginning with the Wildlife Act 1953 and several new national parks. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, burgeoning public awareness of environmental issues was fuelling high profile campaigns against hydro development (i.e. the raising of Lake Manapouri), the clearfelling of indigenous forests, Christchurch's air pollution, water pollution of urban beaches and harbours, and international issues such as whaling and nuclear testing. The growing pressure for better environmental protection was reflected in a series of new laws, such as the Water and Soil Conservation Act 1967, the Clean Air Act 1972, the Town and Country Planning Act 1977(which reformed earlier Acts), the Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978, the Pesticides Act 1979, the Toxic Substances Act 1979 and the National Development Act 1979.

International influences were also becoming more important. In 1972, New Zealand attended the first Earth Summit in Stockholm, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. At the time, New Zealand was party to just nine international environmental agreements, up from one in 1960. The pace of international discussions on the environment picked up sharply after that conference and quickened again in the build-up to the Second Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (see Figure 4.4). Today, New Zealand has signed nearly 50 international environmental agreements and a number of these are reflected in our domestic laws relating to such topics as marine pollution, ozone depletion, and traffic in endangered species (see Table 4.2).

The international influence is also felt through the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), particularly its reviews of our environmental policies (OECD, 1981) and environmental performance (OECD, 1996). In its 1981 review the OECD identified three types of central government agency in New Zealand with environmental management roles:

  • advisory bodies and administrative agencies whose sole or predominant concern was some aspect of environmental policy (e.g Commission for the Environment; Nature Conservation Council; Environmental Council; the Wildlife Division of Internal Affairs; National Parks Authority; Historic Places Trust; and the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust);
  • government departments and administrative agencies whose environmental protection responsibilities were associated with responsibilities for managing or developing a particular sector of the economy (e.g. the Forest Service; Department of Lands and Survey; Ministry of Works and Development; Department of Health; National Chemicals Board; and the national Water and Soil Conservation Authority); and
  • government departments and administrative agencies whose sole or predominant concern was the management and development of natural resources in a particular sector, thus pre-determining the framework in which environmental policies could operate (e.g. Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Ministry of Energy).

The OECD concluded that New Zealand's environmental policies needed to be better advised and better coordinated, and that a more integrated approach was necessary in dealing with the environmental concerns in energy, agriculture, forestry, mining and other economic development programmes (OECD, 1981). These recommendations influenced the new Labour Government's subsequent decisions to restructure central and local government and to overhaul and replace many of the nation's environmental laws.

As a consequence of the reforms, primary responsibility for environmental management was confirmed to rest with local authorities, subject to national legislation outlining the broad objectives and methods available to them for achieving sustainable management. Apart from some issues in which there is a clear national interest (e.g. nature conservation on public lands and endangered species protection, ozone layer protection, and the introduction of hazardous substances and new organisms) responsibility for dealing with most environmental impacts on air, land, water and ecosystems is now in the hands of catchment-based regional councils and the various territorial authorities within each region. Central government does, however, provide guidance on some matters, in some cases setting down national policies, standards or guidelines.

To fully appreciate the nature of New Zealand's approach to environmental management, it is useful to review the nature of government here, and the changes introduced by the reforms of the 1980s.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is New Zealand's Head of State. Her approval is required for new legislation and for the formation of new governments. This power to approve is routinely granted through her resident representative, the Governor-General. The people who actually create the new laws are the democratically elected members of the House of Representatives (Parliament, or the legislature). Once enacted, the laws are interpreted by judges acting through the law courts (the judiciary). The daily running of public institutions is in the hands of Government (the executive ), which is made up of the majority faction(s) in Parliament.

The Government is headed by the Prime Minister , the leader of the dominant party or coalition in Parliament. The Government's major areas of responsibility are referred to as portfolios and are allocated to Cabinet Ministers selected from members of the ruling coaltion of parties that form the Government. Current portfolios with relevance to the environment include Environment, Conservation, Biosecurity, Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries, Transport and Commerce (which deals with energy and tourism issues). Parliament's 120 members are elected through the recently introduced Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, with 60 members representing general electorates, 5 representing the Māori electorates (which overlap the general ones), and the remaining 55 representing political parties that received 5 percent or more of the total vote with the overall allocation to each party equal to its overall share of the total vote.

From 1984, in response to underlying deteriorating economic performance which led to severe borrowing difficulties, major reforms of the economy were undertaken. This included reforming government institutions. These reforms were guided by market-oriented principles that called for a reduction in the size and role of government, greater economic efficiency and public accountability within the state sector, and greater freedom for private enterprise and local communities in making development decisions. Nine State Owned Enterprises were formed to manage the government's commercially productive assets (e.g. coal mines, leasehold land, electricity stations and lines, forests, railways, the national airline and the telephone system). These corporations were defined as commercial operations and required to show profits and demonstrate efficiency in the same way as private companies.

The fragmented environmental responsibilities of the previous government departments were consolidated into three new agencies: the Department of Conservation, the Ministry for the Environment and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. Publicly owned assets were also re-allocated. Commercial resources (e.g. exotic plantation forests) were eventually sold (though the land itself remains in public ownership). Environmental assets, such as indigenous forests that had been managed by several different agencies (e.g. the Forest Service, the Wildlife Service and the Department of Lands and Survey) were all put in the care of the Department of Conservation.

Environmental legislation was also overhauled. A chaotic variety of issue-specific laws were reduced to a few more coherent laws that specified the objectives, responsibilities and general principles of environmental management and redefined the environmental roles and responsibilities of government agencies and local authorities.