Eugenie Sage, the Associate Minister for the Environment, faced further questioning in Parliament today about whether a Minister should interfere in the independence of the Environmental Protection Authority, particularly in its employment of its Chief Scientist.
She was asked why she instructed her office on 15 December to email a copy of a highly critical article about the chief scientist to the chief executive of the EPA with the subject “Great article”?
In answer to the first part of the question, Ms Sage said “yes”.
In answer to the second part, she said she simply forwarded an article to her private secretary to pass on to the chief executive for their information.
“To be clear, I did not write the subject line of that email; it was written by a member of the public who sent the article to me.”
The questioning presumably is aimed at determining if inappropriate government pressure was a factor in the recent resignation of chief scientist Jacqueline Rowarth.
National’s Scott Simpson then asked what was the date of the meeting where matters relating to the employment of the EPA’s chief scientist were discussed between the Minister and the EPA chief executive, referred to in answer to a question on 22 March, when she said, “I was told the matter was in hand.”?
This was “a status meeting”, Ms Sage replied – her first meeting with the EPA.
She said she thought it was on 29 November
“… and there was no substantive discussion of the work of Dr Rowarth”.
Mr Scott asked the Minister why she feel it necessary to involve herself in a series of emails and meetings both seeking and approving a “course of action” around the EPA’s chief scientist, in the emails dated 28 November.
Ms Sage replied:
“The email dated 28 November was from the Secretary for the Environment, setting out a course of action. I simply said that I approved the course of action. There was no substantive discussion.
“If the member would be aware of the Crown Entities Act, that gives the Minister, in relation to Crown entities, a responsibility to manage the risks on behalf of the Crown.”
Ms Sage quoted from the guidance to Ministers:
“Along with being answerable to the House of Representatives, you are also answerable to the public for problems or controversies arising in connection with the entity by responding to questions and participating in debates and reviews.”
She repeatedly had said the public needs to have confidence in the independence of the EPA, therefore matters in the media questioning that independence should be of interest to the chief executive.
Hon James Shaw: What has Dr Rowarth herself said about why she left her post at the Environmental Protection Authority?
Hon EUGENIE SAGE: Dr Rowarth has said publicly that she was not pushed out of her role and that she continues to do contract work for the EPA.
Ms Sage said “yes”, when Mr Scott then asked if the Minister stood by her answer to a question last week that it would be entirely inappropriate for her to be involved in an employment matter.
Hon Scott Simpson: Isn’t the only obvious conclusion from the emails exchanged on “a course of action” and the discussions and meetings held by the Minister with the EPA chief executive that she wanted the chief scientist gone and that the chief executive then initiated an employment conversation with the chief scientist that led to her going?
Hon EUGENIE SAGE: No.