I've always suspected New Zealand's scarcity of environmental enforcement was willful, rather than much of anything else.

Councils chock full of mates looking after mates. A soft word in the ear about pollution breaches, dodgy effluent disposal, or illegal tree felling. That sort of thing. I've seen it too many times to discount it. Turns out I don't have to.

The Environmental Defence Society has released its most recent major report: Last Line of Defence: compliance, monitoring and enforcement of New Zealand's environmental law. It looked closely at those functions under the Resource Management Act.

The author, Dr Marie Brown, found that part of the issue was the sheer expense for councils to prosecute lawbreakers. Other major factors included poor quality law, a lack of audit and oversight, and politicised decision making.


The latter has been a major problem for quite some time. A 2011 report from the Auditor-General's office, on how well regional councils are managing freshwater quality, showed one consistent theme across the board: political interference.

Lyn Provost stressed that councillors should not be involved in investigating breaches or deciding whether to prosecute. At all four regional councils investigated in the report, elected members were found to have been involved in prosecutions to some degree.

Despite being put on notice by the Auditor-General to play with a straighter bat, this aspect of non-enforcement remains a problem in 2017.

While the research was co-funded by the Ministry for the Environment, that didn't stop Dr Brown criticising them.

"[The ministry] is there to provide leadership and guidance to the 78 councils [and others] that carry out the operational aspects of enforcement. But the ministry has allocated little resource to this aspect of its work, and this has resulted in 78 different versions of RMA compliance rolling out nationwide. Stronger oversight, coherent national reporting and greater capacity within the ministry are much needed."

Which kind of explains why I couldn't find the report on the ministry's website.

So, if the agency charged with providing oversight is failing, then it's little wonder that the councils are acting with impunity. Because they are.

Think ECan, for example. Despite hundreds of public complaints last year about stock standing in waterways, none resulted in a prosecution.

If the agency charged with providing oversight is failing, then it's little wonder ... councils are acting with impunity.

Also, data revealed that Canterbury's water was taken by consented users who then extracted millions of litres above their entitlements. Water was being taken during low-flow restrictions in areas suffering through a drought and with the rivers running dry. There were a few fines but zero prosecutions.

Dr Brown's report also singled out the failure of the Department of Conservation's compliance regime and said the agency was "chronically under-resourced" in its enforcement role.

Despite DoC having more than 4000 concessions on conservation land, ranging from tourism ventures to grazing leases, it monitored just 9 per cent of concessions in 2016. Poor data collection meant its monitoring results were not adequately recorded and neither were complaints from the public.

It was evident too that DoC's compliance work was undertaken somewhat reluctantly. Therein lies a cultural problem - but one DoC is at least considering more deeply because of the report.

The report also found that the Ministry for Primary Industries is a very well-resourced regulator. However, despite that, the recent fish dumping saga illustrates the inherent conflict between a trade facilitation role and a trade regulation role.

Indeed, the latest revelations show that the fishing industry monitor is wholly owned by Seafood New Zealand. Yes, you heard that right.

FishServe is contracted to monitor overfishing, manage quotas and decide on licences for the fishing industry but is owned by - and working out of the same office - as the industry's biggest lobby group.

If that's not the great white shark guarding the seal colony, then I don't know what is.

There was some good news in the report. Fish & Game NZ came out top-notch, and was considered to be diligent in all aspects of compliance, monitoring and enforcement.

What gnaws at me about the report is the obvious disconnect between how fundamentally important the enforcement aspect of the Resource Management Act is versus the reality.

Scant regard for decent processes abound. Yet the work that's clearly not being done involves our two biggest earners. Dairy and tourism. As a nation, we should be deeply worried about that.

There's a mantra used by environmental polluters that I've heard with monotonous regularity. They say education is the key. Regulation must be a last resort. You won't get people on board if you don't give them time to learn.

Given the dire state of our waterways, our soil quality, our fisheries and our marine environment - basically everything that we need to feed ourselves - I think it's way past time to employ the stick and ditch the carrot.

It's time to make polluters pay.