JAMES SHAW: Nick Smith fumbles National Party playbook with river-rebrand

National’s Environment Minister Nick Smith knows how important rivers are to Kiwis. He know this because had to bat off the criticism National has received for allowing our rivers to be systematically degraded over the last nine years.

Nick Smith’s big rivers announcement on Thursday was meant to put an end to National’s PR problem. It was meant to look like National was siding with New Zealanders and backing clean water. But it backfired.

The announcement was seen for what it was – a rebranding exercise. Nick Smith claimed National was setting an “ambitious” target to clean up rivers. But to achieve this target National would also lower the standard for what is considered a safe, clean “swimmable” river. Under National’s new “swimmable” river standard you will have a 1 in 20 chance of getting sick if you put your head under the water. To me, and to most people, that is not swimmable.

The question on most New Zealanders minds is, how did Nick Smith ever think he’d get away with it?

I think he thought he’d get away with it because it’s a tactic he’s seen his fellow National Ministers pull off repeatedly - and with great success.

Take Conservation Minister Maggie Barry for example. In 2016 she was facing criticism for cutting funding to the Department of Conservation at a time when the number of threatened species was going up. So she announced an “ambitious” goal of making New Zealand Predator Free by 2050. It sounded great and did what she wanted – attention was diverted and few people noticed how hollow the announcement actually was. National had only committed $7 million a year, for only four years, to Predator Free NZ, despite knowing it would need hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve the goal.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges played a similar trick back in 2015. With climate pollution increasing under National and criticism growing, Bridges decided to announce a shiny, new electric vehicles programme. Bridges even set an “ambitious” target for electric vehicle uptake. It was widely reported as an ambitious programme. But a closer look showed his target for electric vehicle sales was in line with what would happen under business-as- usual, i.e. without any government intervention. In other words Simon Bridges was doing next to nothing, taking all the credit, and labelling himself a climate champion.

So perhaps it’s no wonder Nick Smith thought he’d try his luck at re-branding dirty rivers as clean in the hope of getting this monkey off his back.

Nick Smith, however, underestimated just how much New Zealanders care about their rivers. He underestimated the level of public, media, and scientific scrutiny his attempt to rebrand river water quality would receive. He fumble the National Party playbook so it’s now on display for all New Zealanders.