Tough-talking message from the fearless civil servant

By Andrew Stone

Jan Wright thought the emissions law was toothless ... so that's what she told the MPs. Andrew Stone reports

Jan Wright believes New Zealand will regret its failure to harden its resolve on climate change. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Jan Wright believes New Zealand will regret its failure to harden its resolve on climate change. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Jan Wright conceals her steely approach behind a comforting style.

Workplace images of the 63-year-old at her job show a woman with a warm smile and an easy grasp of confounding subjects

Yet this is the senior public servant who described adjustments to the Government's climate change legislation as a "farce".

Few civil servants would be willing to damn new law with such candour, even behind closed doors.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment felt no such qualms.

"It's strong language," Wright concedes, but says she felt compelled to state her views about the Emissions Trading Scheme amendments because "climate change is the biggest environmental issue that we face".

So Wright did not mince words. She told a select committee the changes diluted the ETS, shifted even more of the burden of paying the bill from big polluters to taxpayers and pushed the goal of a low-carbon economy further away.

Previous law changes weakened the scheme.

"Changes proposed in this bill render it almost toothless," Wright complained.

At least one Government MP took exception to Wright's assault by submission, and attacked her impartiality.

Asked about the criticism, Wright brushed it off saying it "doesn't concern me".

She noted that her reappointment in May for a second five-year term came with the backing of all the main parties.

She had upset politicians before, and she had enjoyed their support.

"I just say what I think, without fear or favour. It's my job really."

She thinks New Zealand will regret its failure to harden its resolve on climate change.

Big polluters - coal-fired power plants, meatworks, the smelter at Bluff and the Glenbrook steel mill - were let off the hook.

She predicts a consequence would be an "embedding of entitlements" of the granting of carbon credits to polluters. A Government would face the hard job of trying to take away something that in effect would become a property right.

"It's hard to imagine how it [the ETS] could have been made weaker," Wright said.

The amended scheme, she says, is bad law and bad economics.

Wright is one of three senior bureaucrats who answer to Parliament, rather than their political masters. (The others are the Ombudsman, and the Auditor-General. Wright is the third commissioner since the post was created in 1987.)

She runs a small office, with 16 staff and a $2.6 million budget. She is not afraid to step on toes, and her style - borne out by commission reports - is light years away from Yes Minister.

Asked about her independent streak, she gave this answer: "Forty years ago I spent a year at Teachers' Training College. At the end of the first day, a fellow student said to me 'you're a real s***-stirrer'. I had never heard the term and was mildly shocked. But I was also very puzzled. All I could recall doing was asking a few questions and I couldn't see what was so unusual about that."

Besides taking a swipe at the watering down of the ETS - a view the Government disputes, arguing that, in fragile economic times, business is in no state to absorb more costs - Wright has upset hard-line conservationists and hunters by endorsing the use of 1080, surprised alternative energy advocates by challenging the wisdom of solar power subsidies, and irritated provincial interests by arguing against plans to develop huge lignite deposits in Southland.

Fireworks could explode when she completes an investigation into fracking, and work on water quality threatens to run up against the dairy industry.

Of her reports, Wright enjoys talking about the 1080 inquiry, which came down in favour of spreading more of the poison in the conservation estate and opposed a moratorium.

"I'm personally rather proud of that report," says Wright.

She recalled asking her staff whether New Zealand ought to use more 1080 "and they looked rather aghast".

The commission concluded that without 1080, possums, rats and stoats would wreak further havoc on native birdlife and silence the forests.

Wright wrote in the report: "It is not perfect, but given how controversial it remains, I for one expected that it would not be as safe and effective as it is."

Her sometimes counter-intuitive work carries no binding power, only the force of what she maintains is carefully researched argument.

The power of her office, she once remarked, came from its cherished independence and ability to report publicly.

A seasoned bureaucrat, Wright started as a high school teacher - she taught at Otara's Hillary College in the 1970s.

She switched to resource studies in Christchurch (where she grew up) and then became a consultant and adviser in the Wellington beltway.

Her skill mix led to an appointment as chairwoman of Land Transport NZ.

Besides a physics degree from Canterbury, she has a master's in energy and resources from Berkeley in California, and a doctorate in 1997 from Harvard University's Kennedy school of public policy .

During her study at the landmark US institution, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She regards herself as one of the lucky ones.

Like many others, she says, "the reality of the brevity of life hit me. This has made me very much aware of the need to not muck around and a drive to just get on with it."

A single woman without children, Wright spends downtime in her garden. She was a tramper; now she prefers day walks.

She says her approach to thorny environmental issues is to try to find some common ground between economy and environment.

"I think that it's a mistake to think that the environment and economy are always at loggerheads. I tend to look for places where the two are in harmony ... when I spoke to the select committee about the ETS I said this is bad for the environment and bad economics as well as bad law."

She believes New Zealand needs to make the most of its special ecology as a remote island nation.

Its image as a "green" country gives it, she argues, an advantage that few other places can claim.

Wright sees her job as protecting that point of difference.

- NZ Herald

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