Attempts to shift MetService to competitor Niwa’s Wellington site at Greta Point were the final straw that sparked the Government’s overdue review of the weather forecasting sector.
For many years governments have ignored rising concerns about Crown research institute (CRI) Niwa’s self-approved intrusion into State-owned enterprise MetService’s forecasting patch, and the potential confusion for the public during life-threatening weather events such as Cyclone Gabrielle.
State-owned Enterprises Minister Duncan Webb announced the review on July 26, about eight months after an irritated MetService pulled out of a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)-commissioned project, whose panel recommended MetService move in with Niwa at Greta Pt as part of a proposed national centre for oceans, climate and hazard research, one of three science hubs in the $450 million “Science City”.
Documents released by MetService, Treasury and MBIE under the Official Information Act show this triggered the Project Hau Nuku (Shifting Winds) review of New Zealand’s public forecasting operation.
The review will deal with the double-up of the publicly owned organisations, and will determine the best system to handle extreme weather predictions. It will also consider how to improve access for private forecasters and the public to currently restricted weather data.
MetService is New Zealand’s official weather forecasting organisation and has a 12-year contract, worth about $26m a year, to provide the Ministry of Transport with severe-weather warnings and public forecasts. That contract runs for another four years.
Niwa and MetService were formed in 1992 from the former New Zealand Meteorological Service. In 2013, Niwa set up NiwaWeather without seeking government approval. Competition between the SOE and the CRI has increased during the past decade.
On December 1 last year, MetService chief executive Stephen Hunt wrote to then SOE Minister David Clark saying he had informed Science City panel chairman Steve Maharey on November 17 that, based on legal advice, MetService was withdrawing from its “voluntary and peripheral involvement” in the project, which includes CRIs, universities and Te Papa Tongarewa. MBIE’s Science City project aims to create three multi-institution research hubs in the capital by 2030, including at Greta Pt.
That move followed an email exchange on November 7 between Hunt and presumably Maharey – though his name is blanked out – in which Hunt refers to a phone call they had four days before, during which the panel member said he had recommended to Research, Science and Innovation Minister Ayesha Verrall that MetService be added to the Science City development at Niwa’s Greta Pt site.
“You also advised during our conversation that Minister Clark has been informed of the recommendation,” Hunt said in the email, before reminding the panel member a decision on any move was the responsibility of the MetService board.
On November 8, Treasury briefed ministers and said “MetService’s inclusion could offer critical mass” for a redeveloped Greta Pt.
But the risks of having them together might outweigh the benefits, the Treasury said, “given competitive tension between MetService and Niwa, the culture of both organisations, and independence of MetService’s asset management”.
Later that day, Hunt bridled at MetService being seen as the “critical mass” for the redevelopment.
A reply, presumably from Maharey, said nothing was “locked in” and that “perhaps synergy” might be a better phrase.
In his letter to Clark, Hunt said locating and collaborating with Niwa could seem like cartel-type behaviour and risked breaching the Commerce Act, given both operated under different regulations.
Boundaries between the two had “become blurred over time, and we believe New Zealand’s safety and prosperity may be compromised in a future environment of increasingly severe weather”.
Treasury documents after that letter show that within a week Clark had initiated the review, requesting the Treasury and other government departments develop recommendations for ministers.
On March 21, MBIE emailed Niwa chief executive John Morgan asking if he was “happy” with a statement that “Niwa has indicated that the current arrangements in the forecasting system should be reviewed”.
“Naturally I don’t want to ‘put words into your mouth’,” the MBIE official said, “but I think that was the substance of our recent discussion. We are of course open to alternative wording.”
Morgan replied only a few minutes later that it might be “more reflective of Niwa’s view” to say “Niwa has indicated that it would welcome a review of the current arrangements in the forecasting system with the aim of improving forecasting services for Aotearoa New Zealand”.
Niwa did not want to comment on the recommendation to move MetService, but said in a generic statement it was time to look at both organisations’ abilities and whether they could be put back together.
Hunt told the Otago Daily Times the December letter was not the only one MetService had sent to ministers about risks from having two publicly funded forecasters.
The current forecasting set-up would not be suitable with climate change fuelling more frequent and more severe storms, he said.