Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage has rejected claims of ministerial interference after a scientist she had raised concerns about left their job at an environment agency.
But she says she regrets not being clearer about her intentions when she forwarded a highly critical article about former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief scientist Jacqueline Rowarth to the scientist's boss.
Rowarth left the EPA in February, soon after concerns were raised about her controversial public comments, in particular her description of irrigation as a "great boon" to the environment.
Sage was among those who questioned Rowarth's comments, and the National Party has accused her of interfering with an independent agency.
Sage said this afternoon that she had not wanted Rowarth to leave her position and had never discussed the matter with the EPA chief Allen Freeth.
"There was no substantive discussion about the chief scientist," she told reporters at Parliament.
In December, the minister emailed an article which criticised Rowarth to Freeth with the subject line "great article". She said today she had simply forwarded the email from a member of the public without amending it.
"I regret that I did not take off the title of the email which was from a member of the public when I asked my private secretary to forward it on.
"I was simply concerned that the EPA was aware of the media articles."
National MPs have also accused Freeth of contradicting himself on his discussions with the ministers about Rowarth.
Freeth said in a letter to the Environment Committee last week that he had a brief discussion with Environment Minister David Parker about Rowarth in November. National MPs Scott Simpson and Nick Smith said that contradicted Freeth's comments to the committee in February, when he said he had not specifically discussed Rowarth or the scientific independence of the EPA with Government ministers.
Reappearing before the committee today, Freeth rejected their accusations.
"I wish to confirm to the committee that I did not provide any inaccurate or incorrect information in my previous evidence.
"As I stated, at no time … did I have any discussions with Minister Sage about Dr Rowarth or the role and independence of the EPA."
The brief chat with Parker about Rowarth focused on the overall scientific approach of the agency, he said.
Freeth said it was "entirely legitimate" for the minister to send media reports such as the critical opinion piece to him, Freeth said. An offer to have a meeting about the article never eventuated.
Sage was not alone in raising concerns about Rowarth. The Prime Minister's chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman and the Environment Ministry chief Vicky Robertson had also written to the EPA about her comments
Freeth today backed Rowarth, and emphasised that she was not sacked from the EPA. He declined requests from National MPs to reveal any costs related to her departure.
The EPA head was clearly frustrated with National's line of questioning. At one point, he shot back at National MP Sarah Dowie for repeatedly referring to him as Mr Freeth.
"It's Dr Freeth," he said.