Appropriations – Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Audit Office and Ombudsmen

The Greens are supporting this report about the alterations to the appropriations for Audit New Zealand, the Ombudsmen and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. I have been representing the Greens on the Officers of Parliament Committee, which is a committee that works very well.

We clearly support the adjustments for the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. The office does a tremendous job and needs a bit of improvement on its current baseline. As the committee members agreed, the office has put out some very effective reports. We had quite a bit of discussion about how to get those reports out into the community more effectively.

One of the important reports that has come out over the last year was called

Growing for Good: Intensive farming, sustainability and New Zealand’s environment

. It was about sustainable farming, and the problems of the degradation of the environment, and in particular of waterways, as a result of intensive farming, particularly dairying.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment brought out in that report the importance of getting agriculture to be sustainable, not just to have a nice environment but also for the economic interests of farmers. As the water quality declines, so effective dairying declines.

The commissioner wrote in that report that the application of nitrogen fertilisers to land has gone up 160 percent in 6 years. If we are to protect our waterways, that is not sustainable. Another issue is that nitrogenous fertilisers are produced by using oil-based products. The oil is getting more expensive, and our farming may become more expensive in the future if we do not take that in hand.

As a result of the report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Fonterra and various other agencies bought into a Dairying and Clean Streams Accord a few months later. The accord is yet to be fully implemented, but the idea is that the dairy companies, the dairy farmers, and the Government are working together to try to get cleaner water and cleaner lakes, and to have a much more sustainable system.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has an ongoing role to monitor that. The Greens certainly support the increased provision in this report. There is a provision for report reprints – and the

Growing for Good

report may have to be reprinted. It is of interest not only to New Zealanders but to people in other countries.

The international links of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment are very important, too, because if one wants the best practice in a commission like this, one has to maintain those overseas links. The committee was a bit distressed that the overseas study tour, which was planned by the Parliamentary Commissioner to check out the evolution of thinking on environmentalism and sustainability, had to be postponed because the Commissioner did not have enough money. So we recommended that the Commissioner be given another $15,000 to enable that study tour to proceed, and hopefully that recommendation will be passed today.

There is also another provision of $400,000 to maintain the capability and capacity of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. When one reads back through some of the work the Parliamentary Commissioner has done, one can see that it is very current. A lot of the questions that he has addressed are ongoing issues that we as a society and as a Parliament are addressing.

For instance, in last year’s

annual report

, there is discussion of vehicle emission controls. The Parliamentary Commissioner, like the Greens, was very hopeful that this Government would address the question of emission controls. The report states: “A vehicle emissions’ screening policy is also to be phased in over the next two years, with standards to be set based on vehicle age and recognition of the emissions’ capability of older vehicles.”

Unfortunately, we have learned over the last week that the only track that the Government was going down on vehicle emission controls , at the time of warrant of fitness tests has fallen over because it is deemed to be too expensive and too inaccurate. The Auckland Regional Council, in a statement in the last couple of days, has also expressed some concern that there has been such a delay in this area.

We will certainly be working with the Minister and the Government, and hopefully getting advice from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on how to proceed with this a bit better and how to take in some of the best practice overseas. Perhaps, when the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment goes overseas on his study tour, one of the things he could look at is how vehicle emission controls work overseas so that we can build on other people’s good work in Europe and places like that where they do good testing.

The other issue that is very current in the annual report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is the whole question of the Albany to Puhoi motorway. He played quite a role in that. As he pointed out, there was a big problem with adverse effects both on the environment and on some of the native bush and wetlands. He was rather disturbed that Transit New Zealand had advised him that road tunnels were perhaps not the best way to go.

The report states: “I was particularly concerned about this line of argument as it removes tunnelling as an option for New Zealand, even where it may have clear environmental, social, or economic benefits. I subsequently urged Transit to develop a more explicit policy process for evaluating roading developments that may involve tunnelling.” He states later on that he was pleased to report that Transit has since reviewed the tunnelling options and, on 6 August 2004, announced that there would be a tunnel as part of the plan. So I think that just shows the importance of having that provision in the appropriations in order to enable the capability of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to be maintained.

There was a previous speech on the Office of the Ombudsmen about the extra $126,000 that has been put into prison investigation support, with $191,000 being added in the 2005/06 year. The increase of prison visits, from 760 to, in 2004, 2,598, is quite dramatic. I disagree with the National Party speaker that perhaps that means the Department of Corrections should take more responsibility for and take a load off the Ombudsman, because the increase in the number of complaints shows deficiencies in the prison system.

There is the whole history of the “goon squad” and, hopefully, the legacy of that is being rectified now. There is the court decision whereby a number of prisoners have gained compensation because of their mistreatment in solitary confinement. I know from my own experiences in visiting Ahmed Zaoui in paremoremo prison that he suffered abuse of his human rights in that respect, too. So there is certainly a need for the Office of the Ombudsmen to continue its considerable role in that area, although there is now talk in Parliament of establishing a prison inspectorate. If that inspectorate was independent, it might take some of the load off the ombudsmen, which would be a very good thing.

There are 1,300 Official Information Act requests that the ombudsmen have to deal with, and the average time taken to fulfil an Official Information Act request is 69 working days – which is quite a long time – so if we want to reduce that, we have to resource the Office of the Ombudsmen properly, in the way the committee has suggested. As the previous National Party speaker suggested, it is in the interests of parliamentarians too, who generate a lot of those requests.

There have only been 15 requests under the Protected Disclosures Act, a statute that the Ombudsman is responsible for helping to implement. That may be indicative of some problems with that legislation. People have to go through all sorts of hurdles before they get to the Ombudsman, and that may put off some people who wish to whistle-blow. Perhaps the Office of the Ombudsmen could enlighten us as we go down the track as to whether it is working as it is supposed to.