The bridge is there: will the water flow under it?

One of the busiest ministers is Nick Smith. This is not just because he is reorienting ACC and large chunks of environment policy but because he goes at it with great energy and, officials attest, in command of stupefying detail.

Last week Smith fined up the last of the 2009 ACC reform legislation’s major changes: discounts for safe employers and penalties for unsafe ones — up to 50 per cent each way for big employers and up to 10 per cent for small ones.

Next month’s “stocktake” of ACC will address private sector alternatives for work accident cover — 136 large employers already self-insure under Labour’s law — and to deliver some medical and rehabilitation services.

Smith last week was still steering clear of competition in other accounts. And he won’t shift the myriad small claims which clog up ACC’s books to the health system.

Far bigger is environment policy. Last year Smith greatly softened the emissions trading scheme, which he has been out selling to the public, and a “phase one” Resource Management Act revamp to make it more development-friendly. He has pushed along national policy statements on renewable electricity and biodiversity to guide councils in RMA consenting. Add waste, the exclusive economic zone, air quality and much more.

Smith is now on to RMA “phase two”, which includes aquaculture, water, the Environmental Protection Authority, urban form and design (a personal focus of Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye) and infrastructure and the intersection of the RMA with the Building, Conservation, Forestry, Historic Places and Public Works Acts (compensation for property taken for public purposes).

The chairs of private sector technical advisory groups on urban form and infrastructure briefed the Bluegreens workshop at the National party conference on Saturday on their upcoming reports.

How does that fit with the government’s heavy economic focus, the conference’s dominant theme? John Key insists on “balancing” economic growth and the environment. That is a zero-sum assumption: more environment is less economy.

The holy grail is to replace the “or” which “balance” implies with “and”: cleaner environment and richer citizens. China figures it can’t get as rich as the United States without huge energy efficiencies. Singapore is investing $US700 million in “clean technology” research. South Korea is focusing a five-year $US85 billion strategic loans-to-business programme on “green growth” and last year pushed the OECD to set up a committee, headed by Smith’s 1990s cabinet mate Simon Upton, to identify what might constitute that growth.

Since February Smith has mused on a clean-tech/green-tech working group, modelled on the tax working group, involving business, academics and officials. He aims to set it up in October to scan and do research and present options.

This is big. But just as big is water: both globally — a new alliance of big NGOs and companies aims to set up a world water stewardship programme — and here.

On Friday Smith announced the first of the “zone committees” to write allocation plans for major Canterbury rivers, an element of a previously agreed regional management strategy preserved in Smith’s draconian replacement of the Canterbury regional council (Ecan) with a commission.

The first is for the Hurunui, of particular interest to Cantabrians of several political hues. The problem for a government which wants a lot more water for a lot more dairying (how otherwise is Key going to double exports to China?) is that the Hurunui was in line for a water conservation order, in effect making it a “river national park”.

The Ecan swoop was an emergency. Of far more import is the Smith-and-David-Carter-mandated attempt by the 58 water interest groups in the Land and Water Forum, ranging from environmentalists to iwi to dairy farmers, to come to a consensus on a national water management policy. Smith’s roughhouse Ecan legislation nearly derailed it but instead, by taking forum members to the brink of collapse, injected resolve.

The forum is to report by end-August. The word from a “small group” of around 20 (plus key officials who test ideas against do-ability) who have been at the negotiating table is that there are the makings of consensus except, so far, on the dicey issue of water pricing and use rights trading.

Smith will then be faced with turning the consensus into law (in 2012) and deciding any moot points in such a way as to keep faith with this “collaborative” process, which dates back to Guy Salmon’s comments at the Bluegreens’ 2006 conference breakfast.

The process offers a bridge from the present piecemeal and wasteful regime to one that makes the most of our greatest competitive resource advantage. The issue: will Smith get enough water to flow under that bridge?

If he does, it could improve the way some major issues are decided in our usually adversarial see-saw democracy. That outcome would be bigger than ACC or emissions trading or water.