(Or, “The Duplicities of Dr Smith: Dirty rivers, Dubious standards, and Double-talk” )
“…We should always measure a Government’s environmental rhetoric against its environmental record.” – John Key,
Water Quality & Shifting Goal Posts
On 23 February, Faux-Environment Minister, Dr Nick Smith, announced a seemingly “bold” plan to clean up New Zealand’s waterways by 2040;
The Government has announced a new target to have 90 per cent of New Zealand’s lakes and rivers reach swimmable water quality standards by 2040.
The target will be based on meeting the water quality standard at least 80 per cent of the time in line with European and United States definition, Environment Minister Nick Smith said.
Currently 72 per cent by length meet that definition and the target is to increase that to 90 per cent by 2040.
Faux-Environment Minister Smith tried to re-assure New Zealanders;
“This ambitious plan to improve the water quality in our lakes and rivers recognises that New Zealanders expect to be able to take a dip in their local river or lake without getting a nasty bug.
This 90 per cent goal by 2040 is challenging and is estimated to cost the Government, farmers and councils $2 billion over the next 23 years. It will make us a world leader in water quality standards for swimming, and that’s important for New Zealand’s growing tourism industry. It will return our rivers and lakes to a standard not seen in 50 years while recognising that our frequent major rainfalls mean a 100 per cent standard is not realistic.”
A day later, on Radio NZ’s ‘Morning Report’, however, his assertions were taken to task with a more critical style of interviewing by Susie Ferguson.
Smith claimed that new levels of e.coli contamination were set to international standards;
“The level, the 540 e.coli, is the level that is set by the World Health Organisation, it the level that is set both by the E.U. and by the U.S.”.
Ferguson challenged Smith’s assertions by pointing out that other international organisations and jurisdictions held lower e.coli level for permissible contamination levels. At one point she asked the Faux Minister for the Environment how rivers currently rated as “swimmable” will now be able to have twice the amount of faecal matter in it and still remain safe to swim in.
Smith’s reply was waffly, suggesting that Ferguson was attempting to mix “Medians” and “95 percentile” figures. He ducked Ferguson’s question.
Green Party water-spokesperson, Catherine Delahunty, pointed out that National had simply re-designated pollution levels by “shifting the goalposts“;
“The Prime Minister thinks he can pull a fast one on New Zealanders by just shifting the goalposts and calling what was ‘wadeable’ now ‘swimmable’.”
The Fairfax article in which Delahunty made the accusation did not disclose what “goalposts” she was referring to.
Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, also referred to a shifting of “goalposts”;
“There have been some goalposts moved, or some ways of measuring things moved, and it’s very difficult to tell whether things are being tightened or loosened. That’s a big concern of mine.”
Radio NZ reported Dr Wright as being highly critical that the 90 percent target-catchment included waterways that no-one would swim in, such as rivers in very remote/very cold regions of New Zealand;
“It’s where do people want to swim and at what time of the year … There’s sort of a dilution that’s gone on by putting the whole length of these rivers in, and the whole areas of these lakes.”
There was further evidence of “shifted goalposts” to come…
Media Analysis & What was left out
When Faux-Environment Minister Smith announced a grandoise “plan to improve the water quality in our lakes and rivers recognises that New Zealanders expect to be able to take a dip in their local river or lake without getting a nasty bug“, he omitted to mention a salient fact.
The government has weakened the threshold for what qualifies as the best quality waterway to swim in as part of its target to make 90 percent of New Zealand’s rivers swimmable by 2040.
Under the old system, for a waterway to be considered the best for swimmability the acceptable level of E coli was less than 260 per 100ml of water.
That equated to a low risk of infection, up to 1 percent, when a person was taking part in activities that were likely to involve full immersion.
Now, the government has changed the whole system so that for a waterway to be considered excellent it cannot exceed a new E coli level of 540 per 100ml [of water] more than five percent of the time, which equates to a less than five percent risk of infection.
To give waterways an “Excellent” rating, National has more than doubled the permissable level of e.coli bacteria in a given river or lake from 260 per 100ml of water to 540 per 100ml of water.
When pointedly asked by a journalist that “the Ministry of Health recommendation is 260 E.coli – how does that relates to the 540 level?“, Smith tried the “baffle-them-with-bullshit-science” response;
“We are saying at 540 E.coli the risk is one in 20 (of getting sick). But that one in 20 is at the 95 per cent confidence level. So there is an extra level of cautiousness. Even if you put 20 people in water and it has a 540 E.coli level it’s not saying on average one person gets sick out of 20. It’s saying one in 20 of 20 groups will have one in 20 get sick.”
Smith’s “ one in 20” explanation was so confusing, he ludicrously managed to contradict himself on Radio NZ;
Under the old system, for a waterway to be considered the best for swimmability, the acceptable level of E coli was less than 260 per 100ml of water.
That equated to a low risk of infection, up to 1 percent (one in 100), when a person took part in activities likely to involve full immersion.
Under the new system, for a waterway to be considered excellent it could not exceed an E coli level of 540 per 100ml more than 5 percent of the time.
That equated to a less than a 5 percent (one in 20) risk of infection.
When it was put to him that the new swimmable standard allowed for one in 20 people to become sick, Mr Smith said, “That is junk science”.
Even Smith can’t keep up with his own bullshit.
Unfortunately, not all media reports (initially) referred to National shifting the e.coli goalposts from 260 per 100ml of water to 540 per 100ml of water; such as Fairfax’s “New Government target to see 90 per cent of rivers and lakes ‘swimmable’ by 2040“; Radio NZ’s “Govt plans to make 90% of NZ waterways swimmable by 2040“; TVNZ’s “Govt wants to make 90% of lakes and rivers clean enough to swim in by 2040“; and NBR’s “Government bows to pressure, adopts ‘swimmable’ target for lakes and rivers“.
The public reading those stories would not have realised that National was effectively doubling the permissable level of e.coli contamination in our waterways.
However, TV3 News (“Govt aims to get 90pct of rivers swimmable by 2040“) and NZ Herald (“Government sets 2040 ‘swimmable’ rivers target“), got it right on the first day (23 February).
To be fair, National’s media release on 23 February – “90% of rivers and lakes swimmable by 2040” – was also missing the crucial detail of e.coli levels being increased.
It was a detail which the Faux-Environment Minister did not want publicised, when he fronted up to the media on the 23rd.
(Note “Two days ago” correlated to 23 February.)
Past Targets & Election Year Gimmickery
The 2040 “target” for supposedly cleaning up our rivers and lakes was not National’s first attempt at setting long-term goals.
National ministers have been setting target-goals for themselves as a kind of “feel good” story for the public. Usually these targets are released to the media in an election year. And usually the target dates are set years, if not decades, into the distant future.
Who can forget these targets;
In 2011 (election year!), National announced that New Zealand would be smokefree by 2025;
The Government has set a long-term goal of reducing smoking prevalence and tobacco availability to minimal levels, thereby making New Zealand essentially a smokefree nation by 2025.
By June 2017, reduce the crime rate by 15%, reduce the violent crime rate by 20%, and reduce the youth crime rate by 25%.
By June 2017, reduce the re-offending rate by 25%.
Another target-goal, set in 2014 (election year!), and announced by Social Welfare minister, Paula Bennett;
…has set a new target of getting benefit numbers from 295,000 to 220,000 by 2017 – a 25 per cent drop. She is also looking for a 40 per cent drop in youth on benefits – getting 21,000 more young people off the benefit.
And this one, released in June last year (strangely, not an election year);
New Zealand to be Predator Free by 2050
Prime Minister John Key has today announced the Government has adopted the goal of New Zealand becoming Predator Free by 2050.
“That’s why we have adopted this goal. Our ambition is that by 2050 every single part of New Zealand will be completely free of rats, stoats and possums.”
The budget for this herculean feat to eliminate “rats, stoats and possums” from “every single part of New Zealand” was set at an ‘extra’ $28 million (above $60 – $80 million already budgetted for pest control) – an amount which was derided for it’s utter inadequacy.
So how are we doing with these laudible, “feel good” target?
Not too well.
In 2015, a Fairfax story revealed that National’s ambitious goal to eliminate smoking from New Zealand was lagging far behind;
However as the deadline looms for Smokefree 2025 – a commitment by the Government to help reduce smoking to minimal levels in New Zealand in 10 years – anti-smoking organisations are calling for it to take bolder steps to preserve New Zealand’s position as a world-leader in the fight against tobacco.
Even the Ministry of Health admits it’s off track…
In New Zealand, tobacco manufacturers’ returns supplied to the Ministry show consumption has declined 6 per cent per year since 2010, or 23 per cent since 2010.
“At this rate, New Zealand will not meet the target of Smokefree 2025,” [Emeritus Professor at the University of Auckland Robert] Beaglehole said. “But it is achievable, and we know what to do to get back on track.”
Perhaps the worst target-goal that has failed was National’s (dubious) committment to cut large numbers from welfare benefits, as conceded by Anne Tolley in July 2016;
Anne Tolley has effectively conceded that National is unlikely to meet its objective of moving 65,000 people off the benefit within the next two years.
In excusing her government’s failure to meet one of their own self-imposed target-goals, Tolley gave this illuminating explanation;
“It’s a very aspirational target.”
Within those five simple words, Tolley has revealed the the eventual outcome and excuse whenever one of National’s target-goals fails: they are only “aspirational”.
This is critical, because like the “Predator Free New Zealand by 2050” or “90 per cent of rivers and lakes ‘swimmable’ by 2040”, the target dates for these goals to be accomplished are so far into the future that (a) no one will recall these committments being made (b) most National ministers who made them will be long-retired, residing in rest-homes and having drool wiped from their slack-jawed faces by under-paid caregivers or (c) dead.
In short, no one will ever be held to account for these failures of policy.
The great mistake made by National is that, at the beginning when they dreamed up these feel-good gimmicks, they set target-goal dates too close to the present. For example, when John Key and Bill English published a document entitled “Better Public Services” in February 2014, issuing a whole raft of target-goals, they set the date for accomplishment at 2017 (for most, though not all).
That left National minister in office only three years later having to explain their failure to achieve their target-goals.
In Tolley’s case, she could only offer the lame excuse that they were “aspirational” goals only.
As Susie Ferguson pointed out to Nick Smith on Radio NZ’s ‘Morning Report‘;
“The long time frame of this though means that you are going to be long gone whether we see that this has happened or not.”
The ultimate Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card for a politician.
In the meantime – stay out of the rivers and lakes. Nick Smith has been seen bull-shitting in them.
Scoop media: John Key – Speech to the Bluegreens Forum
New Zealand Yearbook: 1984
Radio NZ: Water quality measure ‘less stringent’
New Zealand Yearbook: 2008
Ministry of Health: Smokefree 2025
Beehive: Better Public Services
Statistics NZ: Agricultural Production Statistics: June 2015
Scoop media: Big Backdown by Smith on Swimmable Rivers
Green blog: Nick Smith thinks New Zealanders are stupid
Greenpeace: Don’t get freaked by the eco
My Thinks: Come swim with me
No Right Turn: A literal bullshit standard
The Standard: Just allow more shit – a metaphor for this government
Previous related blogposts
This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 28 February 2017.
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