COMMENT:

New Zealanders love to believe that we are a noble, kind and down-to-earth people. Our Prime Minister played into that beautifully with her New York minute last week. The world adored her all-around coolness, and we basked in her reflected glory.

And, yes, there is some truth to it. We are, in many ways, less enamoured by power and status than other nations. But, it's a double-edged sword which also brings with it a certain naivety about motives, realities, and double-dealings.

We have a tendency, especially when our preferred colour of government is in power, to simply not notice the creeping inconsistencies; the subtle or - during John Key's reign - not so subtle erosion of democracy. Right now, it's the neoliberal left's turn to look the other way.

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Of course, a strong and well-liked leader also means the spotlight follows them around. Yet, in the basement shadows, the metaphorical demons may be flitting. The brains of the outfit often live down there, and it's where the plotting and scheming is executed. And it's not so much what they plan to do, it's what they plan not to do that carries a subterranean chill.

Minister of Almost Everything David Parker is one such brain. Indeed, he's widely acknowledged as the biggest brain to currently walk the halls of Parliament. Apart from being Attorney-General, he holds the trade, environment, economic development, and associate finance portfolios. One could easily argue that the environment portfolio is in heavy conflict with the other three.

How do you make tough changes to water quality or irrigation rules without upsetting the very farmers who make the second biggest load of dosh for the country? Taking on the regional councils who administer these rules is not easy either. Egotistical feathers get very ruffled.

I've watched Parker closely over the last year, and listened carefully to every speech he's made to regional councils about environmental rules needing to be toughened up, and how water quality standards need to be strengthened. He's also saying that changes are coming to the Resource Management Act, and that fewer cows will happen - not by putting a cap on bovine numbers but via nutrient limits.

So he's talking the talk, but some of us out here in "boots on the ground" land are starting to get antsy. One year on, his rhetoric is starting to look strained and slightly disingenuous. To add to my suspicions, I keep seeing regional councils continuing to try their devilish luck in watering down any changes that may, one day, be coming.

How's this for a shocker? Environment Canterbury (ECan) - who still have their seven appointed commissioners despite noise from Labour pre-election that they'd be returning it to democracy quickly - are now trying on their biggest sting yet. As if to compensate for the upcoming 2019 removal of their pro-irrigation, pro-farming commissioners, they're now proposing something so cunning as to be downright evil.

ECan is pushing for a new representation structure that massively over-represents rural voters and under-represents urban voters. How? By making it a 14-member council elected from seven constituencies. So far so good.

Except section 19V(2) of the Local Electoral Act directs that when determining numbers of members to be elected, the population of each ward should be divided by the number of members to be elected by that ward and should yield a figure no more than 10 per cent greater or smaller than the population of the region divided by the total number of elected members.

This is known as the plus or minus 10 per cent rule. ECan's proposal breaks this rule in over half of the wards. In some cases, the difference in representation is extreme.

It's totally, nakedly stacked towards rural voters. The under-representation of the urban voters is startling in that, if this proposal were to take flight, their votes are worth so much less than a dairy farmer's in South Canterbury.

It's not news that Canterbury is ground zero for every water issue one can think of. Christchurch now has chlorine in the water to keep it safe from excessive nitrates. In summer, many rivers are running dry partly due to irrigation. The ones with water in them often become severely unsafe to swim in. The link to intensive agriculture is obvious, and the answers are too.

The reality of the New Zealand "water wars" is not some distant, far-flung future away. It's here, and it's now. That ECan would even try this on, speaks volumes about their agenda and their deep anti-democratic streak. One can only hope it fails, but stranger things have happened at sea.

So, where's David Parker when you need him? Is he busy worrying about the GDP? Or our trade deficit? Big issues, I concede.

But so is water, and democracy.

The breakdown of both is inching closer every day.