Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Greed puts a price tag on the 'priceless'

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Even the "priceless" has a price in this confused, 100 per cent pure and natural land of ours.

While 53 per cent of New Zealanders claim they are opposed to exploration or mining of our highest-level conservation land, this love is hardly unconditional.

The just-released Shape NZ poll shows that if mining royalties were upped to 40 per cent, a majority of us feel the "balance between economic benefit and the environment" has tipped over in favour of the cash, and stuff the rare snails and regenerating Kauri. It gets worse.

If the royalties hit 50 per cent, support for mining becomes an avalanche with 61 per cent of Kiwis considering the sacrifice of precious schedule 4 land like the Te Ahumata Plateau on Great Barrier Island a fair price to pay.

And it's not just the general public. Even the Environmental Defence Society has muddied its submissions to the Government's discussion paper, Maximising our Mineral Potential: Stocktake of Schedule 4 of the Crown Mineral Act, by demanding a 40 per cent tax on mining "super-profits ... to bring New Zealand into alignment with Australia."

The EDS was responding to the Government's attempt to sweeten the pill by proposing that up to $10 million of money received by the Crown from mining on conservation land be used, rather ironically, "to enhance conservation outcomes for New Zealand".

The EDS, while arguing the fund wasn't a justification for mining Schedule 4 land, then went on to say that not only should there be no cap of $10 million on this fund, but that a 40 per cent super tax should be levied on the industry, "especially ... as most mining companies operating in New Zealand are Australian".

Given that the current royalty scale for mining companies extracting gold, silver and platinum group minerals is 1.5 per cent on net revenue for the first $1.5 million worth - rising after that to 2 per cent - perhaps the EDS is hoping this 40 per cent impost would have a deterrent effect on all but the most determined.

But the poll of 2215 New Zealanders, conducted earlier this month on behalf of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development, shows how dangerous it can be to start down this trail.

The initial response was that New Zealanders were generally opposed to exploration or mining on Schedule 4 land. Indeed, only 29 per cent supported it.

Interviewees were then told the Government estimated the minerals in the areas under consideration were worth $20 billion. They were also told of the unique ecological value of the various areas.

The talk of extracting billions of dollars out of the nasty miners eventually got the saliva running, this despite only 25 per cent of us having any trust the miners would fully restore the mined areas.

Indeed, once started, the thought of squeezing the miners until they popped became quite a game. Not content with 40 per cent plus royalties, 46 per cent of those polled backed an additional 40 per cent super tax in mining company profits as well as the special price for mining the "priceless" schedule 4 conservation land.

The most avaricious supporters of the double tax were managers, proprietors, the self-employed and professionals on 49 per cent.

Now, I'm as patriotic as the next person in wanting to claw back as much value as possible from minerals extracted from publicly-owned land, but it shows how unprincipled the whole debate has become when the deciding issue revolves around fantasies of instant wealth, gained at the cost of ripping up our conservation lands.

The gold lust emerging from the poll is the same impulse that drove Minister for Economic Development Gerry Brownlee to kick off this whole circus. He's openly dreaming of the $200 billion of onshore, non-hydrocarbon minerals he says is lurking underground just waiting to be dug up and used to solve our balance of payments problems.

But it's the dreaming of the gold-panner, sitting in his lonely tent hoping tomorrow will be jackpot day. We don't even know what mineral wealth, if any, lies in the targeted Schedule 4 land. Yet already we seem to be divying up the proceeds.

If ever there was a time for prudent, behind-the-scenes homework, this was surely it. A quiet check if there were rivers of gold or other rare minerals before the drooling began. Then there'd be some facts on which to base a civilised debate.

But until there are signs of such an approach, my sympathies are with the comments made by then Minister of Conservation Nick Smith back in November 1997, when the Schedule 4 "no go" reserves were written into law.

The EDS submission reminds us that Dr Smith commended the then National government for a bill which "at long last puts some pegs in the sand in some very significant areas of New Zealand and says to the mining industries: 'these are no-go areas,' where 'nature should be able to rule the roost."'

- NZ Herald

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