Matt Nippert - apprentice hack, Auckland

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Damned dams and bloodsports

Call it acid flashback or merely photographic memory, but the canning of Project Aqua brought back memories of New Year. There was a beach, a lot of time, and Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand. The year being remembered was 1960, and the damned dam in question was Lake Manapouri. As King writes, the campaign to stop it had wide-ranging effects:

The greatest benefit arising from the Save Manapouri campaign is that it started a debate on environmental issues, involving national and local body politicians, scientists, professional planners and member of the public. And that debate was fed by literature and television reports of issues arising in other countries throughout the developed world.
Of course, the New Zealand Herald had quite a different spin on its present-day equivalent, predicting power cuts and a spike in the price of power. Fights to the death are much more entertaining if you’re into bloodsports or social change(All doom and gloom – I put it down to not enough poon.) Fair enough to take this editorial stance, but I would have expected their press gallery crew to lead rather than their resident economist. Meridian had sunk $95m into the project, and there was a significant people-power campaign running against it. I wouldn’t back impoverished Southlanders against $95m any day of the week – what happened? King writes on Manapouri:

The revelations of the likely consequences of raising the lake sent shock waves throughout the Te Anau district, throughout Otago and Southland, and eventually through the country as a whole. What scientists and lay people had difficulty coming to terms with was the effect of millions of years of evolution which had shaped the lake’s character and ecology could be wiped out so comprehensively for such a small gain in electric power. It seemed disproportionate.
The arguments against Aqua are pretty similar – power generation would only cover 5 years of projected increase in electricity demand – and the Waitaki river was the largest braided river in the country. But the shockwaves in this case had only spread to the Cook Strait.

South Island voters would have been well aware of the project, and the Otago Daily Times – one of the least well-resourced dailies in the country – had been running a sterling journalistic crusade against the dam. The Christchurch Press took up the cause in late 2003, and, given time, it would have eventually spread north to the Dominion Post (but who knows about the Herald?).

It’s most likely Aqua was knobbled at the knees by a Labour government looking to extinguish a potentially debilitating revolt amongst the left - it’s traditional support base (and probably it’s only support after Orewa defections). A canny political move to be sure, but not without consequences across the spectrum.

Let’s not forget those harbingers of environmental issues, the Green Party. Inside sources tell me of both jubilation and dismay within the Party at the news. Jubilation at a successful and quick campaign (Jeanette Fitzsimons had said 2004 was going to be her year of ‘anti-Aqua’), and dismay the project would not persist into the 2005 election campaign. As an election issue it’s now dead and buried, and the Greens will need to find something else to boost flagging support (can GE be resurrected, after an Royal Commission and the lifting of the moratorium?).

So, damage control, and not the start of new environmental consciouness. Probably a shame: fights to the death are much more entertaining if you’re into bloodsports or social change. Consider Kings analysis of the spinoffs of the Save Manapouri campaign:

…overhaul of water management in the Water and Soil Conservation Act, the attempted elimination of air pollution in the Clean Air Act, and the protection of marine life in the Marine Reserves Act, which resulted in the establishment of reserves in half a dozen locations on the New Zealand coast and around the Kermadec and Poor Knights islands.
And let’s not forget the biggie: the anti-nuclear movement.

Of course, today the Herald angle has changed from power crisis to the damned Resource Management Act. The Press follows a similar time, although doesn't lead with Business New Zealand opinion on red tape - and instead focused on Meridian complaining. About the RMA. Helen Clark says the RMA was only one of the reasons Meridian reconsidered, but that hasn't stopped the legislative child of Manapouri taking the heat.

A pity flashback-through-history-book is the only way I can relive the 70s - they seem like much more grounded, and much less hysterical, times...

DISCLAIMER: The author has worked, professionally, with the Green Party as a media (spin) officer. But this was for money, not love. He’s a mercenary at heart, and his price is high: $12/hour, with guaranteed and regular cigarette breaks.

UPDATE: Michael King and his wife died in a car crash yesterday. The Penguin History was his opus, and the great man will be remembered. The nation mourns, but his family moreso. Condolences. ;(