COMMENT:

Media coverage of the Fish and Game Survey has eclipsed the results from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) released at the end of last year.

Both were done by Colmar Brunton. Both involved approximately 1000 people.

Fish and Game focussed on 'Perceptions of the environment: what people think' and had one results chart. MfE's report was under the title of 'Environmental Attitudes Baseline' with 62 pages of results, analysis and reporting of further questions.

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Fish and Game's funding comes from the purchasing of the licences hunters and fishers are required by law to have before they begin their sporting activities. MfE is funded by the Government from taxes.

Fish and Game licence purchasers might wonder at the use of money on a survey when the research had already been done, but more concerning should be the difference in the results between the two.

Whereas Fish and Game have stated that 'the pollution of lakes and rivers has become the issue that New Zealanders are most concerned about from the options presented…', MfE's research ranked it 13th.

Further probing in the MfE survey revealed that people were divided in their thinking. Over a third (36 per cent) of those surveyed consider water quality in waterways to be good, 22 per cent okay and 38 per cent poor (5 per cent don't know).

The people responding that water quality is good, based their opinion on drinking it and spending time at rivers and lakes. This is termed primary information.

Those that considered water quality to be poor, based their opinion on what they had seen and heard on the news, and information from local and national government. This is secondary information as it relies on interpretation by others.

Of note is that only 40 per cent of responders thought that rate payers should be involved in paying for improvements in water quality.

Attitudes to Climate Change were also investigated. Concerns focussed on who would pay for mitigation, how efforts would affect lifestyle and what the benefits would be. Only a third of people responding to the survey indicated high commitment to change.

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Another half indicated medium commitment, but last year's fuel price furore, despite the fact that fossil fuel releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (where it hasn't been for millions of years), indicates that personal inconvenience and cost is the foremost concern.

In Fish and Game's research, the cost of living and the health system were statistically as concerning for New Zealanders as water pollution. Climate change came after the top three, and child poverty and education, all of which were ranked of more concern than housing.

This housing result is at odds with MfE's ranking of second, behind health, and the Ipsos research in September last year: housing was the top priority for 50 per cent of people, followed by poverty (32 per cent), healthcare (31 per cent), cost of living (26 per cent), crime (24 per cent) and then environmental pollution and water (17 per cent).

CEO of Fish and Game, Martin Taylor, has indicated that the organisation wants an improvement in river and lake quality. This aligns with efforts that are being made in the rural sector as well as the industrial and urban areas: point sources have been cleaned up, urban sewage treatment is improving, and effluent systems in rural areas have been replaced.

The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research has stated that many rivers are now considerably cleaner than they were in the 1960s.

In addition, the Land, Air and Water Aotearoa website, which monitors water quality from all regions, reported last year that there are more improving than deteriorating areas in New Zealand.

Although the councils aren't acting as rapidly as Fish and Game would like, they are allowing time for change, and they are recognising the cost. Improving infrastructure requires income, and New Zealand's income is still heavily dependent upon primary production: 74 per cent of the export dollars, according to the Ministry for Primary Industries.

To create affordable housing, fix the health system, improve education and do everything that the government has on its agenda, requires income. The same goes for farmers trying to do their best by animals, employees and environment.

MfE has shown what the big concerns are for New Zealanders. A focus on these will allow some improvement – people and groups lobbying for attention are distractions from the main task of maintaining and improving New Zealand as a great place to live.

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth has a PhD in Soil Science and has been analysing the interaction between agriculture, the environment and society for several decades.