Politics: Watery grave for collaboration?

This month is the deadline for the Land and Water Forum to finalise consensus on water management. lot hangs on this. The forum is policymaking experiment in collaborative governance, variant on Scandinavian technique used to resolve complex policy conundrums. At issue is whether this will be New Zealand’s one and only attempt.
Environmentalist Guy Salmon wrote report on the Scandinavians’ practices and put the case to the National Bluegreens in 2006. National party MP Nick Smith mandated the Land and Water Forum in 2009 to apply it.
The forum comprises 58 relevant interest groups from environmentalists to dairy farmers and iwi. “small group” of about 20 of them committed in October 2009 to seek consensus, worked out the broad outlines of an agreement in September 2010 and has since developed the detail in working groups.
Ministers told the interest groups not to come to them but instead to pursue consensus in the forum. Officials worked with the forum to keep abreast of its deliberations, and to supply guidance and research but not to interfere.
In May it issued detailed consensus report on water flow limits and pollution controls and how to set them. This month it is due to report on allocation and transfer of water rights. These are highly contentious issues, as attested in the July Waitangi Tribunal hearing on Maori Council claims of an iwi association with waterways akin to proprietorial rights.
Ministers are impatient for the allocation report. That is because they see water as foundation ingredient in economic development.
Water is inefficiently and ineffectively managed. Manage it better and it can grow more plants and animals – lot more. Water storage and irrigation are earmarked as major destination for capital from the state-owned enterprise selldowns.
Back in July ministers began to get edgy. Some thought the first report was too green – even though agricultural and industrial interests are integrated into the forum and so the consensus in the May report was hard won with lot of give and take with greens and recreationists.
Labour, the Greens and the Maori party all backed the May report. Even though all had reservations, they valued the consensus. Ministers said little.
Cabinet insiders say the sceptical ministers are now being inducted into the process – implying those ministers will see the value in consensus as generating durable policy that survives changes of government.
But will they? The Government needs development runs on the board before the next election, which requires legislation to be drafted this year and passed in 2013.
The word when this column was written was that if the forum didn’t report in September, ministers would take over and if it issued report with some matters undecided, ministers would decide them – even if, with another month or two, consensus might have been reached. Officials have been working to that timetable.
There are four risks.
One is that ministerial impatience and the officials’ separate advice may make consensus more difficult to achieve if some groups figure they can do better by negotiating separately with ministers.
At the time of writing the word was that consensus would be reached and ministers would write it into legislation. If not, there is political risk for National: most in the forum are National-leaning and would resent being gazumped by ministers after risking lot themselves making concessions it turned out they didn’t need to make.
The risk for the country would be unstable policy. The next Labour-Green government (post-2014 or post-2017) would change the settings. Policy would seesaw.
And, critically, promising way of resolving hard issues would be lost for generation. Interest groups would shy off trading their positions for consensus if they think ministers will go their own way anyway.
The odds have been on consensus, translated into enduring policy. Later this month we get to test those odds. M

Colin James is New Zealand’s leading political commentator and NZ Management’s regular political columnist. [email protected]

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