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The latest freshwater policy "bombshell" – like a rendition of "Hamlet"

The latest "shock" announcement by Environment Minister David Parker, that limits need to be set at a national level to curb further freshwater degradation (and this may mean less cows in some places!) has triggered all the predictable responses:

“Does David Parker hate farmers?”

“Most farmers are already putting a lot of effort into reducing pollution – regulation is unnecessary.”

“Regulation will be unfair because it will affect some regions and farmers more than others.”

“Farming is the backbone of the New Zealand economy. Without a healthy farming sector New Zealand will suffer.”

"But what about urban pollution? Why is it the farmers that always get picked on?"

Well-worn lines deployed with varying degrees of gravitas. But what many of the “actors” in this play are perhaps oblivious to is that, just like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this play has been performed many times before - over a period of about twenty years. The acting is starting to become a bit lacklustre though, as the actors (apart from the protagonist – we will return to him later) begin to doubt their own lines. They sense perhaps that the audience is moving on, is a bit tired of Hamlet (no disrespect to Shakespeare here), that they want a new play that embraces the future rather than defensive positions of the past.

The protagonist is an entirely different kettle of fish (freshwater, obviously) though. What must strike terror (yes, terror!) into the hearts of his enemies are the words he uttered when announcing his plan, jaw set in grim determination:

“I only have limited time left ... I don’t want to squander this opportunity to clean up our rivers and lakes” (I have embellished slighty here, for dramatic effect).

In other words, Parker has nothing to lose politically.

It is precisely this fear that has thwarted any attempts at more decisive measures over these past two decades – the abject fear of a self-inflicted electoral hara-kiri.

What is invariably lacking in the frenzied discussion that erupts after any suggestion that the government may actually do something is historical context. The fact that this discussion is not new; the same arguments, the same responses, the same attacks, the same reactions, have being deployed over and over again for many years.

The difference this time is that something may actually happen.


I am biased. Environmental history is my passion. (But so is the environmental future.)

My latest book, Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand examines the evolution of environmental management in New Zealand since this ground-breaking campaign to save this spectacula Fiordland lake.

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