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26/3/2018 — Economics, Politics and Government
Questions asked on Minister’s probity

A Green Party politician has been accused of ministerial interference and sticking her nose into staff matters at an independent authority.

Radio New Zealand political reporter Benedict Collins reported that Eugenie Sage, who is the associate Environment Minister, insists she didn't act inappropriately when she raised concerns with the Environmental Protection Authority about its chief scientist.

The EPA's controversial chief scientist Jacqueline Rowarth resigned in February after about 15 months in the role.

Radio NZ had revealed last week the Prime Minister's chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman told the EPA Dr Rowarth was undermining trust in the organisation - while the Environment Ministry also raised similar concerns.

Collins reported that Ms Sage also met with the EPA's chief executive Allan Freeth to discuss Dr Rowarth.

National's environment spokesman Scott Simpson asked the Minister about the meeting during Question Time in Parliament.

“Did the Minister have any discussions with the EPA chief executive, specifically about the EPA chief scientist,” Simpson asked. Ms Sage responded: “I advised the EPA chief executive that my office had received correspondence expressing some concerns about media comments by the chief scientist - I was told the matter was in-hand, there was no substantive discussion.”

Simpson then reportedly asked if Ms Sage had discussed the importance of the EPA's scientific independence with the chief executive. “It is important that the public has confidence in the EPA as an organisation that uses robust science in its decisions.

“And it would not be appropriate for me as Minister to have any discussions with the chief executive about an employee of the authority - I did not do that,” Ms Sage responded.

Collins said documents obtained by Radio NZ show that in December Ms Sage asked her private secretary to forward an article by the columnist Rachel Stewart that was highly critical of Dr Rowarth to the EPA's chief executive.

The Minister also defended not keeping any record or notes from her meeting with the EPA chief executive where she discussed Dr Rowarth.

“Because we don't take minutes for status meetings - if you take minutes from status meetings that's an awful lot of work.”

Radio NZ said Scott Simpson was not impressed.

“There's no way that a minister should be involved in staff matters, and the role of the EPA is to provide independent scientific advice without the threat or prospect of Ministerial intervention,” he told Radio NZ.

Simpson was reportedly alarmed that Ms Sage sent the highly critical media column to the chief executive.

“It's incredibly unusual behaviour from a new minister that professes to be a principled minister.”

Scott Simpson said he would be “incredibly surprised” if there were no minutes from the meeting where the minister and the EPA chief executive discussed Dr Rowarth.

Perhaps there also needs to be a review of Ms Sage, as a Minister refusing the application for Bathurst Resources Ltd (ASX: BRL) to take up the mothballed Sullivan mine in the Buller coalfield. Bathurst had purchased Solid Energy’s operating Stockton opencast mine.

In February NZ Resources reported that Ms Sage, who also holds the Conservation portfolio overturned an Overseas Investment Office (OIO) recommendation that land containing the mothballed Sullivan coal mine in the Buller Coalfield on the West Coast be sold to Bathurst.

Reporting on her response at that time, Radio NZ said the Minister was vocally anti-mining and has led the charge on the Government's policy of no new mining on conservation land.

Opposition energy and resources spokesman Jonathan Young has questioned her objectivity over the decision.

Eugenie Sage told Radio NZ’s Morning Report her decision was made under the Overseas Investment Act and that National’s Jonathan Young “has got completely confused here.”

The purpose of this act, she said, was to make sure sensitive assets were not sold offshore without delivering substantial benefits to New Zealanders.

She reportedly said: “In this case, with the mine closed since the 1990s, Bathurst having no plans to reopen it, the uncertainty around the coal price, what benefit was that going to deliver?

“Why should an overseas company that's 57% owned by Singaporeans, 22% by Australians, have the ability to buy sensitive land adjacent to conservation land on the coal plateau, rural land, when there is no certainty that will provide any economic benefit to New Zealand?”

NZResources said no reference was made about the percentage of New Zealand investors who may still be shareholders of Bathurst.

As a rationalisation in tough times about 18 months ago, Bathurst cut its dual listing on the New Zealand Stock Exchange because of that bourse’s low turnover for resource stocks.

Sources: radionz.co.nz & nzresources.com

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Miss Sage in Parliament. Photo: Radio NZ.