Bruce Bisset: Applying democratic pressure

By Bruce Bisset

Fenton Wilson.
Fenton Wilson.

It's all got a bit silly, hasn't it? The Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme argy-bargy that is, with everyone up to and including the Prime Minister taking sides and so many confusing messages it's hard to know which bit of what is right.

One thing is sure, though: this is a triumph of democracy. And before you fall off your chair laughing, pause to think about that.

First, it's abundantly clear the days of the cosy HBRC old boy's club - when councillors and senior staff were all on the same side, with no one to nay-say whatever they wished - are over.

And good riddance. Because deals done without full disclosure to suit vested interests have no place in a modern public organisation, especially one charged with oversight of our precious environment.

Regardless of whether you support the stance of the first-term four on the RWSS, they have shaken the windows and rattled the walls of our far-too-smug regional council in ways that former lone crusader Liz Remmerswaal could not, simply because she was a minority of one.

But with Belford, Beaven, Barker and Graham teasingly one short of a majority, at last we have something we have sorely lacked: robust-demanding debate around the council table.

Debate that cannot be imperiously shut down, try as chairman Fenton Wilson or deputy Christine Scott might. Wilson's increasingly entrenched bullying, combined with Scott's pedantic attempts to muzzle criticism, indicate how much a dollop of opposing political expression was needed.

That extends to the staff, too. Whether the officer tail has wagged the councillor dog or vice versa, any organisation that pursues its affairs in such single-minded fashion is septic at the core.

Criticism, questioning, freedom of expression and exploration of alternatives are all vital elements contributing to a healthy open-minded culture.

A culture unafraid of change and welcoming of the challenge - because it "tests to the best" the abilities of all its parts in response.

Isn't that what we, the electors, should expect? A council working diligently without fear or favour, holistically in the best interests of the region and all it contains?

Secondly, it's a triumph of democracy because of the way those on both sides (particularly those for the scheme) are being forced to play their cards in public.

The Board of Inquiry's demanding draft determination has brought many vested views into the open, illuminating what's at stake and who is doing what for whom - information that might otherwise be blurred.

The strident nonsense of Federated Farmers and Irrigation NZ, who have claimed the board's environmental conditions will end farming as we know it, has in effect been backed by the HBRC's submission seeking to significantly modify those conditions - reinforcing the prevailing captured mindset of a body that by its charter should be lauding such ecologic protections.

That submission was made by staff, not the ruling councillors, note. Or so we're led to believe.

Now a so-called "people's march" today in support of the project is unashamedly driven by businesses who will directly benefit through the dam and irrigation infrastructure build. Fair enough they're entitled to express their views; not so to pretend the rally is other than a whip-up in their interest.

Add in John Key's comment about the BOI ruling being appealed (before it's even known) and the heavy-weight corporate/political nature of this interest is clear to see. As is the pressure on the board to alter its stance.

However I am cautiously optimistic they will not. And that really will be a triumph of democracy.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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