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The Commissioner

  • The current Commissioner

    Simon Upton was sworn in as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment for a five-year term on 16 October 2017. He is now in his second five-year term. 

    Mr Upton is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and a Rhodes Scholar, with degrees in English literature, music and law from the University of Auckland, and an MLitt in political philosophy from Oxford University. He was sworn in as a member of the Privy Council in 1999.

    A Member of Parliament between 1981 and 2000, Mr Upton held a variety of ministerial portfolios including environment, research, biosecurity, health and state services between 1990 and 1999.

    After leaving Parliament, Mr Upton moved to Paris to chair the Round Table on Sustainable Development at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

    In 2005, he returned to New Zealand to pursue a number of private sector roles while continuing to chair the Round Table.

    In April 2010 he returned to the OECD full time as Environment Director, a post he held for seven years until coming back to take up the role of Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

    The role

    As an independent Officer of Parliament, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has broad powers to investigate environmental concerns and is independent of the government of the day.

    Rather than reporting to a government Minister, the Commissioner reports to Parliament as a whole through the Speaker of the House and the Officers of Parliament Committee.

    Commissioners are appointed for a five-year term.

    The Commissioner’s role is unique

    The Commissioner's role is quite different to the roles of government environmental agencies such as the Ministry for the Environment, Environmental Protection Authority and Department of Conservation.

    All of the Commissioner's work is directed towards a single output: independent reports and advice on environmental issues, and a mission to maintain or improve the quality of Aotearoa New Zealand’s environment.

    Decisions to change environmental law, policy and institutional arrangements are the responsibility of Parliament, central government and local government. Implementing these decisions, and monitoring their impact on the environment, is the responsibility of government agencies.


    The role of Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment was set up under the Environment Act 1986. Its roots lay in the reform of New Zealand's environmental administration following a 1981 OECD report, Environmental Policies in New Zealand. This report recommended changes, including strengthening environmental advice to government, and establishing an environmental body with a separate audit and oversight function.

    Much of the history around the establishment of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is outlined in David Young's book Keeper of the Long View, published in March 2007 as part of 20th anniversary celebrations.

    Further information can be found in Mai Chen's Public Law Toolbox.

    Past Commissioners

    • The first Commissioner, Helen Hughes, served two terms between 1987 and 1996.
    • The second Commissioner, Dr J. Morgan Williams, served two terms between 1997 and 2007.
    • The third Commissioner, Dr Jan Wright, served two terms between 2007 and 2017.

    The Commissioner's team

    The Commissioner is assisted by a small team who possess a wide range of skills and knowledge, and provide administrative, research, technical and general support for his investigations.

    The team is truly multi-disciplinary, with advisors spanning fields as varied as analytical modelling, biology, chemistry, ecology, economics, finance, forestry, geography, geology, history, law, literature, marine science, mātauranga Māori, physics, planning, policy, resource management, risk analysis, social science, soil science, tikanga Māori and water governance.

    The Commissioner is committed to developing an equal employment opportunities environment where diversity is sought and valued.

Updated: 7 March 2024
  • Simon upton, forest and bird conference, mark coote.

    Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, speaking at the Forest & Bird Centennial Conference, July 2023. Photo by Mark Coote.

  • Did you know?
    The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is one of three Officers of Parliament, the others being the Ombudsman and the Controller and Auditor-General.