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

Brian Rudman: Wharf sheds lost in shameful surrender

Queen's Wharf. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Queen's Wharf. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Even for an organisation as lily-livered as the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, its instant capitulation to Government desires to bowl the historic Queens Wharf sheds must rank as one of its most inglorious moments.

It is down there with the Jean Batten Building compromise.

It makes you wonder why Arts Culture and Heritage Minister Christopher Finlayson is so intent on emasculating the trust by cutting off its 23,000 local members from the main body - and dumping the minority of elected board members. Why waste time trying to geld a eunuch?

First, the wharf sheds: Auckland Regional Councillor Joel Cayford revealed that on April 15, Sherry Reynolds, general manager, Northern, of the NZHPT, wrote to the Auckland Regional Council about its joint plans with the Government for a "party central" venue on Queens Wharf.

Mrs Reynolds said as an application to register the wharf and sheds had been received and had "some merit", an "in-depth heritage assessment" was being prepared.

She said a 2009 heritage assessment "accorded high heritage significance to both warehouses and the wharf itself" and preliminary investigations by the trust "indicates that the place has significant heritage values".

She said the trust wanted to work with the regional council and Government in undertaking such an assessment.

After considering the letter, a majority of ARC councillors agreed to "the dismantling" of the sheds, "subject to the outcome of consultation with the NZHPT".

But without waiting for consultation to begin the trust tossed in the towel, with Wellington-based chief executive Bruce Chapman saying while he was "disappointed" with "the decision to demolish the two ... sheds ..we accept the position."

He said they "had been considering registration of the Queens Wharf, however will not be proceeding with this".

When Mr Cayford called this about-face "spineless" Mr Chapman equivocated, saying while registration was not proceeding it did not mean it could not happen in the future.

In the future when the sheds have gone? The trust's job is to recognise and protect heritage. It should be impervious to growls from the Beehive. The trust's bureaucrats have blinked.

The last chance to demonstrate it has a backbone is if the board, headed by high country farmer John Acland, reverses Mr Chapman's decision.

Of course the trust is not the only one to have mastered the art of back flips. Minister Finlayson is an expert, too. In late January, Mr Finlayson upset the 23,000 grassroots members of the trust by announcing plans to "disestablish" the 24 branch committees, and worse, scrap the right of the volunteer membership to elect three members on to the trust's nine-member national board.

Mr Finlayson said the change was so the trust could focus "on its important regulatory role while allowing for better advocacy in local communities".

He said: "Separating the local advocacy interests of branch committees from the regulatory functions of the trust ... means better outcomes for both. For example, local activists will not be constrained by having to work within the priority-setting framework of a Crown entity."

All eight members of the reduced board would be appointed by Government, which "would clear up confused accountabilities".

Coinciding with the minister's statement, Mr Chapman wrote to all 23,000 members to back the changes, noting that "on occasion" there had been tension between the trust's regulatory role "and the advocacy of an active membership which has constrained the effectiveness of the organisation.

"One example is in those cases where branch committees oppose the activities or plans of other Crown agencies."

Cutting the branches adrift will, he said, "hopefully ... lead to an increase in local heritage advocacy".

Long-standing trust members, who didn't want to be identified, argue it's the regional enthusiasts with their local networks who are the eyes and ears of the organisation, alerting the board about heritage sites and buildings that need listing and protection.

This is certainly the attitude taken by Mr Finlayson and his National Party colleagues while in opposition. In 2006, National MPs were aghast when the Labour government introduced legislation to change the structure of the trust board.

At the time, eight of 11 board members were elected by the membership and three appointed by Government. Labour proposed reducing the trust board to nine members, of whom six would be government appointees.

Judith Tizard, the minister in charge of the bill, said increasing the number of government appointees "will more adequately reflect the government's interest in the trust" and "ensure a greater range of skills and experience in the make-up of the board".

Mr Finlayson said it was "thoroughly undesirable" that the board be "dominated' by the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage. Instead of six members being appointed by the minister and three elected by members "it should be the other way round".

He said: "What we are saying traces back to the very foundations of the National Historic Places Trust in the mid-1950s.

"It undermines the principle of volunteerism. It more or less discards the huge contribution of volunteers to the preservation of our historic sites and historic buildings over the last 50 years and simply puts in its place a statutory quango. This is totally unsatisfactory."

Later in the debate he said the trust was "already an autonomous Crown entity [which] must have regard to Government policy when it is directed by the responsible minister, so there is adequate governance oversight already".

His colleague Tim Groser, now Trade Minister, compared it to "Mugabe's Zimbabwe", saying the changes were driven by "cronyism".

He asked: "Is it simply a government that wants to have more baubles to pass along to its mates?"

National's Shane Ardern cut to the quick, calling it "Stalinism". Will he dust down this speech and repeat it when Mr Finlayson introduces his bill abolishing volunteerism altogether?

The trust's abandonment of the Queens Wharf sheds shows how weak it already is.

The reforms Mr Finlayson proposes will ensure it becomes the government quango he warned against in 2006.

I guess when it's your personal quango, it's all right.

- NZ Herald

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