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Ardern Responds To West Coast Councils’ Concerns

Article – Lois Williams – Local Democracy Reporter

A number of the government’s policies have drawn flak from West Coast councils this year — notably those on biodiversity, wetlands, fossil fuels and the use of conservation land. Greymouth Star local democracy reporter LOIS WILLIAMS sat down with Prime Minister …

A number of the government’s policies have drawn flak from West Coast councils this year — notably those on biodiversity, wetlands, fossil fuels and the use of conservation land. Greymouth Star local democracy reporter LOIS WILLIAMS sat down with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a Greymouth café on Friday to quiz her on some of those issues.

Here are the questions and her verbatim responses.

Q: The councils are asking when the government is going to decide what should happen to DOC’s stewardship land — and when some of it might be opened up for gold mining or other productive use. The review was promised decades ago — how’s that going?

Ardern: Work has been under way but the review of stewardship land is going to take some time. I absolutely agree, it needs to be done.

One issue there’s been a bit of debate about in the last term is ‘how do we treat this land?’ If we go through and review it, we will find there will be some that should go onto the DOC estate, and some that doesn’t meet the threshold for protection. So it is going to take some time but it needs to be done, I totally agree.

Q: So can you commit to starting the review in the next term if you are back in government?

Ardern: It would be something that we would do in our next term. We’ve already undertaken a bit of work on it, starting with particular sites; identifying where it was most critical, most pressing. I would say starting on the West Coast makes sense.

Q: There are recurring complaints from West Coast councils that the Green Party has had too much influence in your government — your thoughts on that?

Ardern: I’d be really interested in the areas where that would be thought to be the case. We have had three parties in this government but Labour has never supported anything we weren’t comfortable with. Everything has been by consensus across all three parties.

So looking to the future, my message would be if you want Labour to have the strongest mandate, then vote for Labour. That’s what I’m looking for. If we have an [election] result that requires us to work with other parties, I am still going to operate on the same basis I did last term. We won’t do anything that we don’t agree with, or are uncomfortable with. That’s the way MMP works.

Q: Many people on the Coast rely on coal to heat their homes, it’s cheaper and burns hotter than alternatives. But the proposed new air quality standards will see the phasing out of coal fires … what would you say to those people? And what is happening with the promise of no new mines on conservation land?

Ardern: This goes back to your earlier question: one of [the] sticking points with that [new mines] has been, do we include stewardship land in that? So we haven’t progressed with elements of that policy. But even so, you have seen I think sensible decisions made about mining applications over the course of our term.

In regard to coal burning in homes — when people buy a new burner or replace an old one, yes they will be limited to options that have a lesser impact on health as well, so it is not not just the environment we are worried about. When you have a large number using those products they impact on health. In the south, it makes up about 10% of homes … not a large portion, and we are doing it in such a way that it is phased.

Q: One of our regional councillors, John Hill, says this is slamming the door on technology to burn coal cleanly.

Ardern: There are also other options. Replacements that can burn wood pellets, for instance. But we should not give up on the need for cheaper access to electricity. If we come back to the core of this, why are people using coal? It’s because of the cost of the alternatives.

Q: So how will you deal with that?

Ardern: We need to make sure our grid, our ability to move power around the country is enhanced. That is something we’ve been investing money in, expediting resource consents around. We also need to make sure we are building new options that mean we are not reliant on coal when we run out of hydro. That will help bring down the cost. In future the impact of Tiwai moving to different options will make a difference too. We haven’t lost sight of this and that’s also why we did the electricity review work. We know it’s too expensive for some people throughout the country.

Q: And yet your government declined consent for a little hydro station on the Waitaha River that could have made power a bit cheaper here, possibly?

Ardern: We are looking for projects that will make a real step change. Obviously there was a large environmental debate about that project. You pan over to the one we are investigating at the moment, putting $70 million into wanting to look into Lake Onslow as a storage facility for pumped hydro for New Zealand. So that when we have a dry year we don’t end up relying on some of the alternatives so we don’t dip into fossil fuels but also it should bring down the cost of electricity across the country as well. Certainly that’s what many experts in the field argue and that’s why we are investing money into really exploring it because it has huge potential — if what they assume bears out.

Q: Would you be more inclined to support a large hydro project on the Coast than small ones?

Ardern: If you use the Onslow option as an example, it would be large — thousands of jobs in the making, billions [of dollars] in construction, but we are also not putting all our eggs in one basket. There are a number of smaller pumped hydro options that will also be explored just to test which options would be better for us.

Q: Tourism on the Coast has taken a huge hit. Lots of jobs lost were women’s jobs, and lots of the shovel-ready projects seem to involve men and diggers. How will the government help women find jobs in the coming months and years?

Ardern: Firstly I would say, by never assuming that women don’t drive diggers. When I visited Taupo town redevelopment the project manager there was a young woman who had started out on a digger and worked her way up through the civil construction business.

Q: But you’re not going to get to see a bunch of hotel receptionists suddenly leaping onto diggers, are you?

Ardern: No. But we have seen an increase in people taking up trades, whether it’s electricians or construction or plumbing — across our trades we have a skills shortage. So we have been very specific about trying to encourage women into trades as well, we’ve had about an 8% uplift over the course of doing that work and I would think that through our work to make elements of vocational training and all apprenticeships free, that would also act as an incentive.

So that’s the first thing, but also where there are skill gaps, for instance in mental health workers, we are making that training free. So for women who might have lost work, look at training options. Couple that with the training incentive allowance that we want to restore, that means you can get extra support if you are a caregiver with children, while training. So, trying to package up things that, if women are already in an existing workforce but have extra calls on them, that they are supported to retrain.

Another thing is Food in Schools. We are rolling this out and it will benefit a number of schools in this region. It will create 2000 jobs. The hours involved in preparing lunches for schools will often work for people with caregiving duties as well.

The last one would be Jobs for Nature. Where we have had tourism, those people will often have an eco-tourism bent, they have a love of the outdoors, a desire to show New Zealand to the world. We have found a good match between that workforce and some of the nature-based jobs that are available. So opportunities are there as well — 11,000 jobs through that.

Q: The cost to councils of implementing new freshwater and environmental policies have been estimated by the West Coast Regional Council as about $4 million with new staff, monitoring, etc. Any financial help for small councils?

Ardern: It’s been one of the things we’ve been really closely looking at. For our forward plan, we are going to have to work in partnership with local councils and also with our farming leaders.

What we’d like to do is create a really easy mechanism through, for instance, farm plans to make sure we’re addressing all the biodiversity issues; all the water, health and safety issues and animal welfare issues in one place.

That can then be used by the council for their regulatory auditing purposes as much as it can be used by the farmer or the farm manager. We just announced this week $50 million to support the development of those farm plans and to support councils to use them as well. So it means we can remove some consenting processes. The first area we really want to have a go at using this mechanism for is winter grazing, because it would cut down a lot of the red tape for councils and for farmers.

There has been a really good response from the farming community and from council to that investment because we have recognised there is a cost there. Let’s see if we can help reduce it.

Q: There’s been a claim by Judith Collins that you hate farmers — any thoughts on that?

Ardern: I noticed there was an attempt to spark this divide last election too. It’s just politicking and I really reject it. The idea that somehow our farming community doesn’t have the same goals of leaving the land and water better than they found it, is wrong.

I hear them talk about it in the same way we do. The discussion we’re having is ‘how do we get there?’ I would rather focus on the things we have common consensus around — which is a lot — than try and create division and blame where there should be none.

I feel quite strongly about it … maybe it’s having grown up in a rural community but I think it takes us nowhere, that kind of debate. The focus should be on the solutions because when we find them it will only enhance the wealth we generate from our export markets, and our reputation. There are only gains to be made if we get it right.

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