How the dairy slump beefs up the case to restore democracy to ECan

Opinion: With falling dairy prices and evaporating rivers, James Dann says it’s time to give Cantabrians back their vote for their regional council.

The Key government’s decision to replace the elected council at ECan has been a blot on their record during the dairy boom. Now, with the sector heading south, it looks like one of their worst economic decisions as well.

The rapid expansion of dairying on the Canterbury Plains in the first decade of this century led to an ever-increasing demand on the region’s water resources. The crisis came to a head following a report by the former MP and dairy farmer Wyatt Creech into ECan – ECan being the fancy brand name for Environment Canterbury, aka the Canterbury Regional Council, the largest such body in the country, which oversees buses and water from Kaikoura in the North to Timaru in the south.

The Creech report said that ECan was “dysfunctional” – and by “dysfunctional”, they meant “not handing out resource consents for water quick enough”.

On April 30, 2010, less than six months before a local body election, at which their “dysfunction” could be judged at the ballot box, the elected councillors were marched out. On May 1, the commissioners walked in.


Irrigation on the Canterbury Plains. Photo: ECan


None of this happened without objection. There were a number of large scale protests, probably the first of the Key reign. However, this all ended with the September and February earthquakes. Never missing an opportunity to exploit a good disaster, the government decided in 2012 to push ECan elections out to 2016. Apparently the votes of the otherwise resilient people of Christchurch were able to be counted for trivial elections, such as the 2011 and 2014 general ones, but our quake-brains weren’t able to make decisions about whether we should irrigate the near-desert environment of the McKenzie Country. Meanwhile, the government cracked on with the subsidisation of irrigation schemes in the region, including pouring money into the controversial Central Plains Water Scheme.

Fast forward to 2016. The dairy industry is up to its knees in faecal-contaminated water, just like those cows pictured in a high-country lake over the summer. For Cantabrians looking to cool down on a hot Nor’West day, there was only one river or lake between Ashburton and Kaikoura in which it was safe to swim over the holidays. A lake outside Twizel has disappeared, and streams that run through the north-western suburbs of Christchurch have now dried up completely.

And yet the government was just last week trying to push through its bill for the “mixed model” of governance of ECan, which is proposed to continue until 2019 (although we were meant to get full elections back in 2013, then 2016, so let’s not hold our breath). This model proposes to have seven elected councillors, with six commissioners. Of those seven elected councillors, only four will come from the Christchurch urban area, where the vast majority of Canterbury’s population live. The other three will represent the rural areas of North, Mid and South Canterbury, and will most likely return councillors who are favourable towards farming. It looks inevitable that this new council will be no more concerned about environmental issues than the current one is.

While the dairy crisis will be bad for a number of farmers and share milkers, the environmental crisis in the region will be bad for generations to come. The Tourism Export Council CEO has called for a halt on any new irrigation schemes, warning that it is only a matter of time before an international tourist gets sick from contact with one of our many polluted waterways. With tourism overtaking the ailing dairy industry as our biggest export earner, you’d think the Tourism Minister might be more concerned about damage to the “100% Pure” brand.

Upon releasing their proposal for the “mixed model” of governance, Nick Smith said that a democratic ECan “carries too many risks”. Yes, there is the risk that the people of Christchurch might elect councillors on a pro-water platform. There is a risk that those councillors will try and limit the take from our rivers, to prevent streams drying up. There is a risk that they might try and enforce standards to ensure that our waterways are safe for human contact. There is a risk that they might limit the amount of effluent that can leech into the ground, and that this may in turn limit the number of dairy cows that can be run on some farms. These are real risks.

But there is a much more significant risk. The risk that we continue to do nothing, to let the farmers govern themselves, to continue to throw taxpayer money into irrigation schemes that don’t stack up, and to turn a blind eye to the destruction of our environment that has happened in such a short space of time.

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