New Zealander of the Year Finalist 2012: Jan Wright

By Andrew Stone

They were the people who made New Zealand a better place in 2012. Some of them responded heroically at a moment when they were most needed, others worked tirelessly - often behind the scenes - to improve the lives of others. They are the Herald's New Zealanders of the Year. Over the next three days we will profile 10 finalists and announce the 11th - and overall winner - in Saturday's Weekend Herald. Our sport and business teams have also nominated finalists, starting from today with the overall winners on Saturday.

Dr Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, in Wellington.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
Dr Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Civil servants as a rule keep their opinions to themselves and make their ministers' lives comfortable.

But not Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who in September slammed the Government's retreat on climate change legislation as a "farce".

A month later she thundered that by watering down measures that would hold polluters to account, "we're being locked into promoting old, dirty, technologies".

She says her position on climate change is not out of line.

"I'm not the only one pushing for action. The scientific evidence for climate change just keeps getting stronger. New Zealand started off well but has fallen behind, partly as we weaken our own response and partly as other nations strengthen theirs.

"Winning 'fossil of the day' awards while simultaneously trying to sell ourselves as clean and green is not a sustainable strategy."

No one should be surprised by her trenchant views.

In an earlier report the 63-year-old came down on the side of using the poison 1080 in the fight against possums.

Last month she disappointed the lobby pushing for a moratorium on fracking, but cautioned the industry behind the controversial underground technology that they needed to work safely and carefully.

Dr Wright is just the third commissioner since the post was created in 1987. She is six months into her second five-year term.

Should anyone ask, she is quick to point out that she reports to Parliament, and not to the Government of the day. Three months ago, after a Government MP attacked her impartiality, she told the Herald: "I just say what I think, without fear or favour. It's my job, really."

She is buoyed by the reaction to the work she oversees in an office of 16 staff.

"While I only have the power to make recommendations, I do have the privilege of being free to choose what I investigate and to reach conclusions in an entirely independent way."

Dr Wright says it's important to take a long view on the issues she studies: "One of the things that gives me great heart is that despite these huge, seemingly insurmountable environmental issues, New Zealanders do care a great deal about their environment."

- NZ Herald

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