Challenges facing New Zealand in the 2020’s

As we enter the 2020’s with bush fire smoke descending on New Zealand from our Australian neighbours and the world watches U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorate further (more on that tomorrow), it is important to note our own considerable challenges. They cover a broad smorgasbord of issues that without significant action in the near future, have the potential to cause significant grief in years and decades to come. I briefly look at what I consider to be the major challenges here:

CONSTITUTION: Whilst our current framework gives New Zealand flexibility that an entrenched constitution such as that of the United States does not, the latter has some features that we should consider adding. The framework which consists of seven significant Acts of Parliament includes the Bill of Rights Act 1990, the Human Rights Act 1986 and the Constitution Act

There have been challenges in Parliament in recent years to the framework that need to be addressed before one renders it useless. They include incidents where Parliament has voted to remove a Commissioner without doing due diligence; legislation passed that directly undermines the legal right in the Human Rights Act 1986 to peaceful assembly . Such steps are not only highly improper, they pass into grey areas of New Zealand law and potentially set a dangerous precedent.

ECONOMY: Since 2016 the economy of New Zealand has been stuttering along, partially caused by global uncertainty as the situation in the Middle East continues to deteriorate; uncertainty over Britain and Brexit and the U.S.-Chinese trade war. But we cannot blame it all on international concerns.

Long standing concerns about the lack of diversity in the economy and a lack of emphasis in terms of investment in science research and technology still exist. New Zealand will not become one of the higher wage earning nations in the west until they are.

EDUCATION: Whilst this Government is on the right track having another look at Tomorrow’s Schools, I am concerned that the students are missing some very basic teaching in the rush to embrace digital technology. Many students struggle to show mathematical working on paper; construct basic sentences and that not enough is being done to embrace books. Whether the Minister will address this remains to be seen.

The tertiary education sector also faces a number of challenges. They include the sector reforms announced by Chris Hipkins, who has embarked on what I consider to be an overly radical reform whereby all of the institutions are merged into a mega institute. The push back is understandable, though some of the smaller institutes that are vulnerable to failure should be closed before they implode.

ENVIRONMENT: Since Labour came to office there has been a welcome escalation in the war on waste. To the Government’s credit it has banned plastic bags, announced a phase out of fossil fuels and acknowledged that water quality is a major issue. This is one somewhat brighter area despite the many and considerable challenges facing the natural environment.

But the Government must step up the tempo. The review of the Resource Management Act, whilst a good idea is in danger of just adding to the confused 800 page beast it already is. It needs to announce how it is going to tackle the phase out of fossil fuels in conjunction with economic and social leaders, and the war on waste is really only just beginning.

FOREIGN POLICY: New Zealand foreign policy is largely correct in my book, with four significant exceptions. Two are super powers competing for our attention and support. The third is the willingness to continue to put New Zealand first by taking a third way as opposed to a Chinese way or an American way.

It is the fourth that should concern us the most as we need to do more to help our Pasifika neighbours. The Samoan medical emergency caused by measles has shown it does not have the ability to cope with this all on its own. They also need to be reassured that New Zealand takes their environmental concerns seriously and will push them at the United Nations.

POVERTY: This is really a combination of social, background, medical and education factors working (or not working) together. Neither National or Labour have really tried to acknowledge this. Nor have they tried to address the neoliberal economic model that favours a small select group of people and ignores the rest. Trickle down economics is a myth perpetuated to make people believe that market economics work for all. They do not and poverty is a significant consequence of it.


National says: Repeal the R.M.A.

The National Party have announced that they will repeal the Resource Management Act, 1991 if they are elected to office, with planning spokeswoman Judith Collins saying the replacement will be “developer friendly”. Whilst no doubting that this will please traditional National supporters in the 2020 election campaign it flies straight in the face of Mr Bridges recent attempts to suggest that National under him is prepared to be environmentally responsible.

There is no doubt that the Resource Management Act is in need of reform. Virtually every party in Parliament accepts that the Act is in dire need of an overhaul. But several questions arise, which need answers to before one can proceed:

  • How many are willing to acknowledge a significant part of the problem is not actually the fault of the R.M.A. but how the Councils charged with implementing the Act do so? It is these councils who investigate resource consent applications, issue, monitor and enforce them. It is these councils that have to decide how and whether the proposed activity of Joe Blogg’s will have undue effects on neighbouring properties and the environment?
  • Can those who rail against the Resource Management Act actually point to specific provisions in the Act and explain why there is a problem with those provisions?
  • Will those same people remove, gut or otherwise alter the all important Section 5 that provides for sustainable management of our natural and physical resources, and without which the Act essentially has no heart?
  • Without repealing the Act, how many of the amendments made to it over the last nearly 30 years work as they were intended to and how many are redundant?

Is the Resource Management Act perfect? Name me a piece of legislation anywhere in the world that is “perfect”. Do we even what a “perfect” piece of legislation is? It is only ever as good as the practitioners who have to implement it – whether is planners in councils, analysts trying to make sense of the legislation – and the people who wrote it in the first place. Obviously the environmental requirements of New Zealand have changed significantly since the Act became law in 1991, but so has the world around it. With New Zealand having an ecological footprint big enough that if every nation had one the size of ours we would use up 195% of Planet Earth. In other words a whole planet Earth (current one) and 95% of Planet B – which obviously does not exist.

There are other issues that come into play as well, which would need to be acknowledged.

  • After all of this time preparing City/District/Regional plans, National Environmental Standards and so forth, how many really want to start all over again on a brand new slate?
  • How much impact would this have on our current international obligations and if there were impacts, would New Zealand still be able to uphold those obligations?
  • New Zealand’s environmental reputation – what’s left of it – could be permanently ruined at the cost of tens of thousands of jobs; billions of dollars in economic losses built on being – relatively! – clean and green.

Whomever chooses to back Mr Bridges on this better have damn good reasons for doing so because the R.M.A. is a fundamental part of New Zealand’s environmental legislative framework. And unless that supposed replacement can do the job as well or better, the entire framework is at risk of collapse.

So, remind me again, why is repealing the R.M.A. such a great idea?

Focus on the essential following White Island eruption

A few days after the White Island eruption, the blame games, the speculation and the conversations that need to wait a bit longer yet, are getting underway. I have seen people commenting on matters such as whether tourists will be allowed back on the island; what this means for activities with an element of risk attached. I am seeing people – the ones commonly known as “armchair critics” – passing judgements that are in many ways, premature, ill informed and most probably detracting from the more immediate conversations.

New Zealand, the media and the public need to focus on the essential aspects:

  • The families of the dead, injured and missing
  • The dead and the injured
  • Retrieval of the missing from the island
  • The fact that White Island is still at an elevated alert, still capable of having another explosion

The families of the dead – what a horrible situation this must be for them. Irrespective of whether they are locals or not, knowing that their loved one/s are dead and that some of them might be still stuck on an unstable, venting volcano really is the stuff of nightmares. For them this will be a conflicting mass of emotions. Fear and anger, an insatiable appetite for answers, grief and pain all potentially happening in a horribly chaotic and random emotional spectacle.

How could this have happened in New Zealand? What were their loved ones doing in such a dangerous location? Why are the authorities not trying to get them out? Which hospital do I contact and how?

The dead will have suffered horrible injuries – a mixture of impact injuries from being struck by ballistics (rocks ranging from fist size up to small cars)and burns from being caught in what appears to have been a surge cloud generated by the explosion, and most likely a couple hundred degrees celsius. Identifying them will be a pain staking process and involve a different set of observations to those taken of the 15 March 2019 terror attack victims in Christchurch or victims of the Christchurch earthquake on 22 February 2011.

The Disaster Victim Identification team, who have the difficult, horrible and painstaking task of trying to identify the victims have assembled in Whakatane. This will be a brand new problem never to have happened in New Zealand before. With no prior experience of D.V.I. on victims of volcanic activity this is all potentially uncharted territory in terms how to go about the work. I wish them luck.

Right now White Island is still at an elevated level of unrest – at Alert Level 3 it is still experiencing minor unrest, and conditions exist which are considered favourable for another explosion.

Whilst this is the case there is no prospect for getting the remaining bodies off the island without putting those involved in undue danger. No doubt this will upset and possibly anger a few people, but safety is absolutely paramount – given the lack of warning in the minutes immediately prior to the eruption that one was imminent, were one to happen whilst the rescue team were on the island, they themselves could easily become casualties.

Later on the time will come for a bunch of conversations, which will need to include:

  • How we communicate natural hazard risk in New Zealand
  • Reform how we teach natural hazards in New Zealand schools – earthquakes aside New Zealanders are poorly informed about tsunami, volcanoes and a range of other hazards
  • How ready we are for a major volcanic eruption
  • At what point do activities become too risky and who takes responsibility for the risk

The time for these conversations is coming. They are important ones to have and when the time comes it needs to be an honest conversation. But that time is not now.


A volcanic wake up call for New Zealand

In January 1991 I visited White Island volcano in the Bay of Plenty with my parents. It was an awesome yet surreal place, completely hostile to everything except a colony of birds living on its flanks and broken scrub in which they had made their homes. It helped to fuel a long standing interest in volcanoes and a desire to work on them. But nearly 29 years later in an eruption in broad daylight it has shown New Zealand and the world why volcanoes command respect.

The eruption at 1411 hours New Zealand time 09 December 2019 was tiny by global standards. It only lasted a few minutes, but in that time it has killed one person, injured 23 and left another 27 unaccounted for.

So, how did one small eruption that would probably have been forgotten by many by the end of the year except for the fact that it was lethal, manage to cause such grief? And how can this be prevented from happening again?

White Island is a volcano with a crater lake covering the main vent. Between the water and the magma below there is a layer of sediment that changes in chemical composition to almost crystallize and bound the debris covering the vent together. If the magma is at depth then fumarole activity will be lesser because the sealed vent provides less routes for the vapours to escape. As it rises the fumarole activity increases. Directly above the magma a mass of volcanic vapours rises towards the surface and as it pushes its way through the fluid saturated debris steam pressure builds. When the overhead mixture can no longer sustain the pressure it explodes.

Unfortunately eruptions through lakes tend to happen with quite short notice – only a few minutes in some cases, though the warning signs might be overt: seismic activity, a disturbance in the crater lake and increased venting. In the case of White Island where the boat/helicopter is some several hundred metres from the vent, even if they ran back, they might not make it before the explosion.

The explosion in a confined space can be devastating. A cloud of superheated rocks, mud and steam will expand at several hundred metres per second in all directions. If conditions permit a ground surge of falling debris will move across the crater floor and immediate surrounds at possibly over 100km/h. Whilst there are instances of people surviving such conditions, their injuries are likely to be acute. Based on the available footage of yesterday, that is what appears to have happened.

White Island, like New Zealand’s other volcanoes is monitored 24 hours a day 7 days a week by GeoNet, which has a network of seismometers, camera’s and other instruments in place. They provide real time seismic, photographic and other coverage of the volcanoes. Yesterday, just before the eruption, the GeoNet camera on White Island’s flank took an image that showed people on the crater floor perhaps 50-100 metres from the crater rim. The seismometer showed elevated activity that had been continuing for about three weeks was still happening. Last week a GeoNet statement said that it had entered a phase where an eruption should be considered possible.

Duty volcanologist for Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (G.N.S.), which operate GeoNet, Brad Scott, has said that it is up to individual tour groups whether or not they operate from one day to the next. They operate through various alert levels. Hard hats, fully enclosed shoes and breathing masks are compulsory.

Over the next few days as the authorities piece together what happened, New Zealand will learn the story of how White Island caught authorities, tourist operators and locals alike off guard. But for now we focus on the survivors, those that are missing and those that were injured.


Government expanding single use plastics ban

Polystyrene, the soft white material surrounding our larger electronics when we get them from the retailer is something we have a love/hate affair with. Great for protecting sensitive goods from knocks, light weight and widely used. But at the same time a waste management nightmare, which breaks up easily that is causing massive environmental grief.

I support the banning of polystyrene. Anyone who has torn apart a piece of it will know how a mass of bound little soft white balls can shred into thousands of them instantly. Weightless, non-biodegradable for hundreds of years in the natural environment and in New Zealand alone each year many thousands of kilogrammes of polystyrene is manufactured and subsequently sent to land fills or discarded. It can be found all over the place – streams, on beaches, roads, and elsewhere, transported by the wind from loosely sealed bins or skips.

Now polystyrene food containers are among the targets in the next wave of single use plastics set to be banned by the Government. They join a host of others including

Although this is not as yet targeting the polystyrene that is used to transport electronics such as desktops, television screens, printers and so forth, it is a good start.

I also support the other initiatives being announced by the Government, which include:

  • A National Plastics Action Plan
  • Improving national plastics data collection
  • Measures to mitigate environmental and health effects of plastic
  • Innovation of products using plastic waste

Back in December 2017 China announced it was going to stop accepting other nations rubbish from 01 January 2018. Whilst some were concerned that it would be taken negatively, I was pleased because I want nations to take responsibility for their own rubbish, including New Zealand. Why should China take our rubbish when 1.5 billion people create unknown tonnage of it each day, leaving authorities with a waste problem – never mind the associated environmental problems – that I doubt most people in the west could honestly comprehend?

But with it came challenges – and opportunities – which I now attempt to discuss.

New Zealand is one of the biggest consumers per head of population in the world of resources. And although responsibly it seeks to improve the state of our waste control, it is noted by tourists and locals alike that not nearly enough is being done.  The challenges come in part from needing to dial back what we create, which will mean necessary changes in consumption patterns. It will mean a more regulated consumer environment. Changing the consumption habits of a life time can be challenging, but New Zealand will have to try if it is to seriously reduce the waste out put being created. It will also create questions about what to do with existing waste, especially since a storm on the West Coast in March showed how easily an old refuse tip can be destroyed by a flooding river, and the consequences of old rubbish in the environment.

But there are opportunities – some controversial and others quite logical. They include the potential for waste to energy plants, which I personally like the idea of if the problem of fly ash can be successfully dealt with. One proposal already attempted was for a W.t.E. plant on the West Coast which would generate enough power to make the province self sufficient. But these have generated controversy, not least because they do not actually encourage less waste creation – though it was pointed out to me that existing waste could be removed from landfills and carted away to these stations and when empty the landfill is rehabilitated.

Perhaps more logically plastic bottles could be swapped out for glass bottles as we used to have for milk and fizzy drinks. How easily this could be reinstated would depend on how companies like Fonterra and Coca Cola react – would they come on board? Or would in the case of Coca Cola, they look to aluminium as an alternative to plastic? Which creates its own opportunities and issues.