Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Ministry barking up wrong tree in dawn raids

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Graeme Platt. Photo / Michael Craig
Graeme Platt. Photo / Michael Craig

When the Government pushed through the Search and Surveillance Act giving police powers to upwards of 70 government agencies this year, not even the most extreme of doom mongers envisaged an outcome as Monty Pythonesque as the dawn raids last Thursday on two of Auckland's most prominent plant experts.

The Herald on Sunday's story read like an April Fool's Day spoof. Four carloads of biosecurity "police", headed by a bureaucrat apparently flown up from Christchurch and escorted by a regular police officer, swept into the Albany property of pioneer native plant nurseryman Graeme Platt. They seized computers and searched for samples of a variety of kauri found only on the west coast of Santo Island, Vanuatu, labelled Agathis silbae.

But Mr Platt says no such species exists. He says the name is a recent mislabelling by a New York botanist John Silba, who named it after himself, and that the offending plants belong to the wider species Agathis macrophylla, or Pacific kauri, found in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji.

The raid was labelled Operation Silbae which, Mr Platt mocks, was a hunt for "a non-existent tree due to one idiot in New York".

The basis for the raid is that Agathis silbae, if it exists, is a forbidden import, because it was not in the country before a 1997 law banning new plant imports without Ministry of Primary Industries approval.

Mr Platt, who was awarded a gold medal for plant raising from the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture last year, says he personally brought in plant material from Santo on April 23, 2006, declaring them Agathis macrophylla, a species which was in the country decades before the 1997 ban. Now, six years later, the biosecurity police, for reasons they refuse to declare, have raided the nursery, taking away DNA samples and banning Mr Platt from allowing any kauri or Norfolk pine plants to leave his property.

Simultaneous raids also took place at the home and work place of the universally respected curator of Auckland Botanic Gardens, Jack Hobbs.

Mr Hobbs has been muzzled by the Auckland Council from commenting, but presumably he and the gardens were targeted because the gardens are being developed into Kew-type gardens for the Southern Hemisphere, a living library, as it were, of the plant life of our part of the world. Naturally enough, material has come from Mr Platt's nursery.

MPI yesterday said it was "investigating the possible illegal importation of plant materials in Auckland", but refused to comment further.

Bridling at the claims of a "dawn raid", MPI denied this, saying "while the visit was carried out under a search warrant, officers gained entry by knocking on the door and the call was not at dawn, but at 7am". Sunrise last Thursday was at 6.42am.

The statement added: "The ministry times such investigative calls for pre-work hours to ensure that the people concerned are at home. This is both to ensure we can discuss the issue with them, as well as to avoid forcibly entering and potentially damaging properties."

In other words, they turned up prepared, it seems, to batter down doors, if Mr Hobbs and Mr Platt had not been at home. All over, if Mr Platt is to be believed, an academic argument over whether Pacific kauri is one species or more.

Have we really become such a brutal society that an esoteric scientific debate has to be argued with the threat of sledge hammers and simultaneous dawn raids?

Did the bureaucrats not consider a more civilised approach, like ringing up and suggesting a meeting. It's not as though the suspected illegal immigrants would have suddenly made a break for freedom and hot-footed it off to the Waitakeres to have their evil way with their New Zealand cuzzies. Indeed, Mr Platt says he's tried to hybridise kauri species for years without any success.

He does admit that during the search, the raiders discovered some banned noxious Kariba water weed, which he's had since 1974, and dreams of using as a fuel stock to feed into methane digesters to produce electricity.

He says he knows where there's plenty in the wild if they're interested.

So, if they want to, the MPI have something to hang on Mr Platt. But as their brief statement says, that wasn't the cause of the raid.

Of course the local plant world is in a furore. As one leading campaigner messaged, it might have been a better use of MPI's scarce funds if they'd spent the raid cash on backing Auckland Council's attempts to research the deadly disease now spreading through our kauri forests.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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