A bill that keeps Government appointed commissioners in control of the Canterbury Regional Council ("ECan") for an additional three year term has passed its first reading in Parliament and is now before the Select Committee. The Bill seeks to amend the Environment Canterbury (Temporary Commissioners and Improved Water Management) Act 2010 to extend commissioner governance and special water management decision-making powers beyond the current 2013 term expiry until the 2016 local authority elections. A ministerial review of the arrangement is proposed to take place in 2014. A copy of the bill can be found here.
The commissioners are currently led by Dame Margaret Beazley and are tasked with addressing urgent problems with water management in Canterbury. The Government is clearly of the view that the task is not yet complete. In particular, the Government has indicated its concerns that the Land and Water Regional Plan is yet to be adopted, the Canterbury Water Management Strategy is still some way off full implementation, and that sub-regional plan changes are still required to give effect to the Regional Plan.
As a result, not only do they consider that the commissioners need to remain, but so do their unique powers to progress the resource management planning framework, including limited rights of appeal on decisions. Minister Amy Adams has said that "it is critical that the planning governance structure for Environment Canterbury is stable, effective and efficient". The Canterbury earthquakes have resulted in a level of disruption that was not envisaged at the time the original legislation was passed and the maximum three-year term set. The Government considers it vital that the commissioners' strong governance remains in place through the initial phases of the rebuild process.
While much emphasis has been placed on the extensive expertise of the commissioners, there is no guarantee that the current commissioners will even be in the hot seat come 2013 - the proposed second term commissioners will be selected by normal state services selection processes.
In Canterbury, the reception of the Bill has been mixed. Federated Farmers and the Canterbury Mayoral Forum have both publicly supported the move, acknowledging the success of the commissioners and that governance of Canterbury's water policy remains too complex to be returned to elected representatives. Others have criticised the move. But the initial replacement of the elected representatives in 2010 was highly contentious and the same allegations of violation of democratic rights have flared once more.
In introducing the Bill, the Government has not adopted the recommendation by the Department of Internal Affairs and the Ministry for the Environment in the Regulatory Impact Statement to establish a body made up of elected councillors and government-appointed members which, it was argued, would retain a "significant element of democratic governance and appropriate skills and knowledge on ECan's governing body to ensure the commissioners' momentum is carried forward and certainty for the region's return to a position of economic growth and prosperity".
Submissions on the Bill close on 23 October 2012. For more information on making a submission, see here.