Incredible news. The government has just announced it will eradicate 90% of drink driving by 2040. Yes, by 2040 the majority of New Zealanders will comply with the government’s new drink driving rules. Their method is so genius in its simplicity you’d wonder why we don’t apply it more broadly across all our societal problems.

How have they done it? Well, look closely as it’s only in the fine print, and well, really it’s quite technical and quantitative so you, the public, need not pay any attention to the details, and you know, they’ll work out that detail later… but ok seeing you’re really interested, they’re achieving their drink driving target by…doubling the blood alcohol limit. Simple, reduce drink driving offenses by making it no longer an offence to drive drunk. So pragmatic. And we kiwi’s love our pragmatism, don’t we?

By now I have enough faith in your cognitive abilities to trust you’ve picked up that I’m taking the piss. What a ridiculous concept. No rational, responsible government would make such a blatant attempt to pull the wool over voters’ eyes. That is the kind of slimy, underhanded, alternative-truth policy only possible under the incompetency of a Trump government. Isn’t it?

Well keep up folks, because that’s exactly what Minister Nick Smith pulled this week. The National Government announced that ‘NZ’s lakes and rivers would meet swimmable water quality standards by 2040’. At a glance, it’s impressive stuff. It speaks to our kiwi values. That kind of future-focused thinking which provides for future generations might even get your vote. What is easily overlooked however, is that the government intends to achieve this by doubling the acceptable allowance for how much faecal bacteria, yes, from excrement, that can be present when you take your family down for a dip – raising the level of what is acceptable from 260 e.coli count per 100ml to 540.

To add insult to injury they’ve been bold (or arrogant) enough to deem these contaminated waterways as ‘excellent’ A-grade rivers. Forest and Bird’s CEO Kevin Hague was quick to sum up the realities, “This means that if a school class visits one of our rivers, at least one child is likely to come back sick from polluted water. What parent will be willing to take that chance?’ NZ’s Rural General Practitioner Network came out immediately condemning the government’s standard with their Chair Sharyn Hanson saying “There is a clear and urgent need to have confidence in the safety of our fresh water systems…accepting second rate water quality standards merely continues the behaviour of short term gains at the expense of our children’s futures and New Zealand’s sustainability”.

There was public outcry when the government settled on ‘wadeable’ (as opposed to ‘swimmable’) as the national standard. It appears they’ve assessed this backlash as too risky in an election year so have decided to act. But ever so cynically their ‘action’ amounts to rather not-so-subtle editing, simply changing every ‘wadeable’ reference within the NPS to ‘swimmable’, alongside their lax standards.

Let’s not mince words here – this government’s announcement is a betrayal. It is a betrayal of both current and future generations and their rights to a government which protects the public good over private gains. The injustice of it is – it is us, the public, who have the most to lose. Future generations will bear the costs of eventual clean up when society wakes up to the fact that there is no economy without a functional environment. We will bear the cost of the health impacts too, with our children and elderly paying a particularly high toll, as they are most susceptible to gastrointestinal poisoning.

So what does this mean for Canterbury? Luckily, the incompetence of central government need not pollute our region. Environment Canterbury, and regional councils across New Zealand are free (where there is the political and community will) to set targets above these gutless national standards. With increasing nitrogen, pathogen and toxic cyanobacteria trends turning up in our rivers and lakes, water we depend upon for our largely untreated drinking water across Canterbury, the task of providing for the health and wellbeing of our communities is an increasingly difficult challenge. This tells me we can’t afford to look to the central government laggards for support in guiding our desperately needed freshwater improvements, our solutions lie solely with us.

In the last local body election, Christchurch voted overwhelmingly (actually, entirely) for candidates who prioritised freshwater as fundamental to human health and wellbeing. In this latest iteration of the NPS for freshwater the government are grossly underestimating the importance of this issue to voters. The government are either daft enough to genuinely believe that scoring a goal by shifting the goal posts is something to be proud of (ignoring the fact that changing the narrative around a word bears no relation to environmental outcomes), or they have such a disdainful opinion of the intelligence of us kiwis that they don’t think we’ll see they’re pulling a number on us. Perhaps if we were a city of drunks we could let this pass by. Fortunately for us, despite their cloudy messaging and spin, we’re not bloody idiots. As government regulation and sheer common decency guides us, we’re driving stone cold sober.


Lan Pham is a freshwater ecologist and one of the newly democratically elected Environmental Canterbury councillors. You can follow Lan on Facebook here.

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One Response

  1. Ah Yeah But

    Of course truly swimmable water is very close to drinkable water. And given no-one can own water, that would make for a very tempting free alternative to buying bottled water from companies such as Oravida which pour $ into the tax barrel by the bucketful. Or not.
    On the other hand if swimmable/drinkable water is scarce, freshly-cleansed water becomes a value-added product (just like bottled spring water!). And if it’s value added than someone makes a profit.
    Which way would you go if you were a right-leaning, free-market idealogue?


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