John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Better to bury failure than risk defeat

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John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Better an utter, total if humiliating backdown that kills the issue stone dead, rather than a messy compromise which satisfies few and keeps the matter alive to National's detriment well into election year.

That was the thinking which prompted the Cabinet's u-turn on Monday on its earlier support for allowing mining operations on some 7000ha of the country's national parks and other areas of high conservation value.

The massive public backlash in March against the joint Ministry of Economic Development-Department of Conservation stocktake which recommended parcels of land could be removed from such protection was always expected to see some kind of retreat on the Government's part. But not the about-face confirmed by Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee yesterday.

His colleagues are thought to have quickly ruled it out following the stocktake's recommendation to remove such protection from parts of Great Barrier Island and the Coromandel Peninsular.

Put that down to the Auckland vote.

However, in subsequent weeks, the Government veered towards removing that protection - which comes through listing in Schedule Four of the Crown Minerals Act - from a 3300ha portion of the Paparoa National Park on the South Island's West Coast.

The rationale for this was that the Department of Conservation had never wanted the land included in the park in the first place, that it would appeal to the many pro-mining Coasters and lastly, would be a small face-saver for Brownlee, the architect of the policy.

That view swiftly evaporated when Brownlee discovered that removing that land from Schedule 4 would need a law change.

Such legislation would have been open to public submissions and taken months to get through Parliament, thereby giving opponents of mining another vehicle for attacking the Government. Detaching just a tiny piece of land from a national park would also have been seen as precedent-setting.

There seemed no point in going ahead with legislation when there was roughly zilch prospect of any economic upside before the election given the time it would take to get a mining operation even on to the drawing board.

Brownlee is understood consequently to have come to the conclusion that all the areas in the stocktake recommended for delisting from Schedule 4 should continue to enjoy protection.

The view was that it was preferable to take a few days of punishment now than allow the matter to continue to cause aggravation for National.

That may explain Brownlee's composure yesterday despite his earlier gung-ho attitude towards mining on Schedule 4 land. Any personal angst over the policy fiasco had already passed.

Those at his press conference expecting to see some kind of spectacle - either him committing some form of political hara-kiri for the failure or lashing out at all and sundry for failing to share his foresight on the benefits of expanded mining operations for the economy at large - were to be disappointed.

Instead, Brownlee veered between eating small pieces of humble pie and arguing the stocktake had dramatically increased public awareness of mineral potential and paved the way for more mining on land outside Schedule 4.

He even went as far as to say the uproar had provided a "mandate" for expansion. The logic of that claim is questionable. But then Brownlee needed to salvage something from the wreckage to counter his critics.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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