Airport consultations “a sham”

The message was (very) loud and clear from those protesting the consultations. There was as much anger about the lack of democratic process as there was the airport itself.

Councillor Niamh Shaw summed up the current airport impact assessment consultations by saying, “councillors have had no input into the process: nothing to do with the Request For Proposals, choice of consultant, terms of reference/scope, or identification of key stakeholders.”

Shaw goes on to say, “There is one context within which this is acceptable: that councillor involvement would have assigned these reports a status that simply isn’t merited. 

“These assessments are intended only to provide information; and nothing in the way of recommendation. This was confirmed by Martin Jenkin’s lead consultant during a presentation to Councillors just over two weeks ago.

“The second important factor is that, although this process involves some degree of engagement, it is neither full engagement nor comprehensive community consultation. Ultimately, the current engagement being undertaken by Martin Jenkins is no substitute for full consultation within the community directly affected.”

Broad criticism has been lobbied at the process, particularly to the representation ratio. The Wānaka Stakeholders Group with over 3000 members got an invite for one person to represent them, whilst small groups with perhaps 30 members also got one invite. To complicate it further, Roger Gardiner, who was representing Wānaka Central Business District Property Owners Group, says his group was split in their opinions; some want a new jet-capable airport and some don’t. How was he, one person, supposed to accurately represent what his membership wanted?  

Gardiner, and Michael Ross from WSG both complained of the narrow scope of pre-determined questions, all aimed towards getting a predetermined answer. “We were being asked to provide input into a predetermined format. This restricted an examination of wider options. I think that when the input from all the sessions has been assembled/collated, it will represent a very generalised and broad brush data set. Time was short and there was very limited opportunity for open-ended debate and discussion,” said Gardiner. 

Ross was also deeply skeptical of what should have been an open and transparent process. “We did ask if there was to be a record of the meeting taken —  to which the answer was no. When we asked if we could record the meeting — the answer was no and we were not permitted to take photos of the forum either. This did not feel like a local government type meeting at all which was a bit strange because by and large —  most of the attendees all knew each other. We were also advised that Chatham House rules applied and that we were not to disclose who said what,” said Ross.

Ross expressed concern last week that Martin Jenkins had been consulting with tourism operators before Christmas, a fact that Councillor Shaw clarified; “As I understand it, Martin Jenkins spoke to the following organisations early in the process, in order to set context and understand variables and background: QLDC, Queenstown Airport Corporation, Destination Queenstown, Queenstown Chamber of Commerce, Ignite Wānaka, Aukaha and Ngai Tahu Tourism.”

As disclosed in Martin Jenkins’ methodology last week, the four scenarios the groups were asked to consider were: 1. No change in noise boundaries at Queenstown Airport; 2. Change in noise boundaries at Queenstown Airport; 3. Dual airports with scheduled flights from Wānaka and 4) New International Airport. The one scenario which currently has the biggest support —  scheduled turboprop flights — was not even being considered. 

Ross continued, “The scenarios which were put in front of us were criticised, as one possible scenario which a large number of us supported was in effect status quo, but with turbo prop flights resumed in and out of Wānaka. This scenario was not one that Martin Jenkins has proposed —  so we requested that this be created.” MartinJenkins had indicated that these focus groups will help inform the public survey that is shortly to go live so whether a turboprop service is included in the public survey will be very telling. 

The fact that there is an online public survey coming is confusing, because the methodology that the Wānaka Sun received last week, made no mention of public surveys —  only focus groups. Whether the survey has been hastily added on as a last-minute addition or whether the methodology is not worth the paper it is written on is not fully clear. It was noted that the date stamp on the methodology was 12 Feb, 1.24pm —  a mere two hours before emailing it to the the Wānaka Sun; a clear indication that it was not an original document and had been edited/truncated/censored. At a time when the public and media are loudly demanding transparency, this raises suspicion. 

As the consultation was getting underway, protestors made their voices heard outside the Lake Wānaka Centre, replete with a sound system playing the deafening sound of a jet engine. Whilst most of the protestors were opposing the airport, many were equally upset about the lack of democratic process. Activist, Anna Simmonds said “This is a combination of groups… members of all the community associations, Extinction Rebellion, WSG… we are deeply concerned about the lack of democatic process. I’ve printed out a giant sign from the Local Government Act on how councils are supposed to make decisions, and it reads like a comedy act compared to what’s going on now.”

Simmonds pointed out that this issue isn’t just about the airport, and that in fact, some people who are pro airport or neutral are still concerned about the way the process has been handled and that the transparency of information and the inclusiveness of consultation have rendered the process broken.  

Councillor Shaw is well aware of the issues. She firmly believes this is about governance, process and consultation, not just the airport. “The community involvement in the economic and social impact assessment reports is being described as ‘consultation’,” she said. “However, Martin Jenkins is not consulting; it is conducting some level of community engagement. This is appropriate assuming the economic and social impact assessment reports are research. In other words: the sourcing and provision of data to inform future decisions, and similar to any number of reports generated by the QLDC. They should in no way be a recommendation or decision.

“The Local Government Act clearly defines consultation and — as far as I understand it —  this community will be consulted on the future of our airport(s) during the masterplanning process.

“It is my personal opinion that, in relation to the airport(s) issue, the areas of governance, process and consultation could do with some clarification and/or nurturing attention.”

Shaw has been beating the democratic drum since she took office. At the December 2019 council meeting when the previously rejected SOI was hastily accepted by council, Shaw made her feelings clear by saying at the time; “Even being mindful of the requirement to move forward on the SOI I will not be agreeing to the revised statement of intent from August 2019. I am aware that this is at odds with many of my fellow councillors and it grieves me because I want to be part of a team which aims to get things done. However, a team works together in an open and collaborative environment to discuss options and come up with a solution. There has not been the opportunity to discuss and make this decision collaboratively. 

“I appreciate the council now finds itself in a position where it urgently needs to meet certain obligations. However, it is my position that the revised SOI wasn’t right in August, and it’s not right now...

“Modifying the SOI is being presented as a poor use of time and resources. However cleaning up a mess is rarely an efficient use of time and resources...For me, the notice given us was insufficient time for councillors to work together and identify a solution that is not only acceptable to us but more importantly the communities that we represent. Going forward, I would ask that further consideration is given to working collaboratively as a team in advance of these big decisions. We owe it to the community and our council to not make decisions such as this in haste and we can do better.”

One thing that Shaw and Martin Jenkins have both elaborated at length, is that these reports are just reports —  they are not recommendations. 

Martin Jenkins said, “There is no evaluation criteria as the analysis will not result in a ranking of scenarios. Impacts will not be weighted, by impact or by social or economic focus. An objective is to understand the range of views and perspectives on the impacts that affect the community and present these back. We will look to present as much relevant information as possible for each impact (economic and social) and estimate how these impacts will change under different scenarios.

“Better information on the range and understanding of impacts, and how they could change under different scenarios, will allow decision-makers to make more informed decisions on future plans for the airports.”

Shaw agreed by saying that these reports only provide data and information--not instruction. Actual decisions “will be made through the Statement of Expectation (a recent requirement for the Statement of Intent process, according to the Local Government Act) and Statement of Intent process to direct the QAC. Also, Council will fulfil some decision-making role surrounding the proposed masterplan process.”

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