Adam Bennett

Adam is a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Key backs Nick Smith over Ruataniwha dam report

Conservation Minister Nick Smith. File photo / Mark Mitchell
Conservation Minister Nick Smith. File photo / Mark Mitchell

Prime Minister John Key is backing his beleaguered Conservation Minister Nick Smith who is once again under fire for allegedly intervening inappropriately in a departmental issue.

Dr Smith is facing claims a Department of Conservation report raising questions about the massive Ruataniwha irrigation project in Central Hawke's Bay was watered down after he voiced concerns about it.

The Green Party has called on him to step down over the matter which is now being reviewed by the department itself. The furore comes 18 months after Dr Smith resigned his ministerial portfolios after the Herald revealed he had - while ACC Minister - improperly intervened on behalf of his old friend Bronwyn Pullar as she was pursuing her claim with the corporation.

Speaking to reporters in New York overnight, Mr Key said Dr Smith had his full backing.

"I haven't followed everything step by step, it hasn't seemed necessary to be honest, but I have complete confidence in him."

DOC boss Lou Sanson yesterday confirmed he had initiated a review into his department's handling of its submission to the board of inquiry which is dealing with the Hawke's Bay Regional Council's resource consent for the Ruataniwha dam.

The department is also investigating the leak of the department's 34-page draft submission which rang alarm bells about the water quality regime being proposed by the council. A short time after Dr Smith was briefed on the direction of the draft submission on July 29 and expressed concerns about it, it was amended, removing references to the water quality issues and was reduced to just two paragraphs.

DOC yesterday also confirmed a staff member who was involved in preparing the draft submission resigned shortly after it was amended.

Dr Smith has denied having influence over the changes to the submission and says he was unaware of the draft version until last week.

Mr Sanson said he stood by the decision taken by his senior managers not to submit on the wider environmental aspects of the proposal and said Dr Smith did not direct DOC about the submission it was making.

However, Mr Sanson said he did have questions about the timeframes for making final decisions on the submission.

Labour Leader David Cunliffe says there remains "a lot of murk" around how "suddenly after Nick Smith's meeting with his officials a 34-page document turned into two paragraphs".

"There's a lot more to come out about this story," he said.

Dr Smith will face more questions over the issue in Parliament this afternoon

- NZ Herald

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