Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Are DOC job cuts really the end of the world?

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DOC Director-General Al Morrison has denied claims it is all about cost cutting. Photo / Supplied
DOC Director-General Al Morrison has denied claims it is all about cost cutting. Photo / Supplied

The Department of Conservation cuts are not quite the end of the world as we know it but, according to critics, it's not far off.

Opponents of the restructure and job cuts are pulling out all the stops to try and block the announced changes. Labour's Ruth Dyson claims: 'This signals the end of the department as many New Zealanders know it'; New Zealand First has labelled it 'environmental sabotage', Greenpeace says it's an 'assault on Kiwi values', Forest and Bird says 'Dozens of hard working men and women will lose their jobs, and they're the people out there every day protecting our wildlife', and the Greens claim that 'precious plants, wildlife and landscapes' are now at risk with National turning 'DoC into a corporate entity focused on stakeholders and corporate sponsorship'. These are all part of the 'torrent of criticism' listed in Peter Wilson and Dave Williams' Government criticised over DOC cuts.

These criticisms may resonate strongly with the public, and National faces a hard sell of its latest austerity measures. After all, New Zealand's National Parks - and conservation in general - holds a special place in the public's heart. National's major U-turn over plans to mine the conservation estate can testify to that. The Government might also ponder the Cave Creek disaster of 1995, when cuts to DOC were seen to play a major part in the deaths of 14 visitors to a National Park. This argument is put forward in Greg Presland's blogpost, Cave Creek II?. Another opponent of the cuts, Green blogger David Kennedy, has attempted to put the cuts into perspective, comparing the savings to other examples of government expenditure - see: DoC Cuts A Tragedy!.

Opponents of the cuts have popular and emotive arguments at their disposal, helped by the fact that Wellington managers are safe from restructure. On this last point, there is plenty of disagreement between Labour and National. The Government's ability to cut public service numbers, so far, has relied on its deliberate strategy of only cutting so-called backroom managers and leaving so-called front-line service delivery jobs intact. Labour is therefore doing its best to portray the DOC management cuts as actually hitting the front-line of delivery. Dyson says that those being sacked 'are involved in species recovery, track building and rangers now have their jobs under threat' - see Radio NZ's Fears frontline cuts will undermine conservation work.

DOC Director-General Al Morrison has denied claims it is all about cost cutting, saying the re-structure would be going ahead even if there was no need to cut $8.7 million from its budget. This is a line the Government and its supporters have seized upon in the face of the mounting criticism - see, for example David Farrar's DOC restructuring. Duncan Garner (@Garner_Live) has tweeted to call this the 'Lie of the week' - for more Twitter highlights on the topic, see: Tweets about the DOC cuts.

Al Morrison has been a very strong salesperson for the restructuring and cuts - and will possibly make the difference between this being a success or failure for the Government. If National had a less enthusiastic and credible Director-General of DOC leading this exercise, it might expect much more flack.

Is there an alternative to the cuts? Critics are pushing the argument that instead of cuts, increased user-pays could be introduced to National Parks. For example, Seven Sharp asked last night: 'Has time come for New Zealanders to pay to use national parks?' - watch Heather du Plessis-Allan's 3-minute video, Paying for NZ's nature. And Marcus Lush, in one of his one-minute videos, argues for greater user-pays for foreigners visiting this country - watch: DOC should charge tourists more for National Park usage - Video. However, the Government has ruled out any rises, saying tourists already contribute hugely through their spending, and that it doesn't want to reduce access for 'ordinary New Zealand families' - see Rebecca Quilliam's Price rise for parks not on. Notably, those quoted in favour of higher DOC charges are private tourism operators competing with DOC.

The corporate sponsorship element of the Government's plans for DOC could also be very unpopular. Radio New Zealand reports that 'DoC hopes to receive $6.5 million from commercial partnerships' - virtually the same as the announced cuts - see: DOC restructuring cuts into 'strength'. Apparently the 'Auditor-General warned the department to be careful when entering these arrangements, saying corporate finances can change, putting the relationship at risk'. This danger is communicated strongly by two very good items - Scott Yorke's satirical DOC sheds 140 jobs, but new owner remains committed - a scenario in which Warner Bros take ownership of DoC - and in Rachel Stewart's How DOC sold its soul for $20m, in which she argues Fonterra really has taken part control of DoC's water agenda.

The DOC restructure also highlights that the Government is doing its bit in a 'jobless recovery'. The cuts take the total public sector job losses well over 3,000 since 2008. And on top of that, these job cuts come at a time when the Government is incredibly vulnerable on the issue of unemployment. With looming cuts of a huge magnitude at Telecom, the Government cannot afford to be seen as ignoring the need for job creation, let alone contributing to job losses itself.

The Government also faces an uphill battle defending the EQC data breach - which is the largest in New Zealand's history. The Government response hasn't been particularly impressive, leaving the Prime Minister wide open for satirists - with a brilliant example in The Civilian's faux news report, EQC mistakenly deletes entire insurance record. But the issue is hardly a trivial one, and there are two aspects to it. First, the issue of data safety and privacy - covered well by Adam Bennett in Key: Email gaffes not systemic and Dan Satherley in Key plays down EQC privacy breach. But it could be the actual information in the leak that proves more embarrassing in the long term, and in this regard, see TVNZ's EQC accused of 'lying' over property repair values.

Other recent important or interesting items include the following:

For anyone trying to understand the internal-machinations of the Labour Party, the Standard has published a must-read post, Labour's three factions, which are apparently made up of the Left, the Careerist Left, and the Right. This post sorts Labour MPs into the factions and argues that the recent disturbances within Labour can be understood in terms of these factions, especially the one supposedly led by Grant Robertson. Chris Trotter has blogged his own version of the factional politics at play, including his three categories of 'Team Shearer', 'The Young and the Restless', and 'Cunliffe's People' - see: With God On Their Side: Explaining Labour's Factional Divisions. All of this analysis might be bolstered by Tova O'Brien's TV3 story, Labour gone cold on GST-free food. It shows that the current Labour caucus is winding back its bolder leftwing policies from the 2011 election.

Could Laila Harre be the next Minister of Labour? The ex-Alliance Cabinet Minister has just announced that she's joined the Green Party, and is looking to get involved in the 'machinations of a party again'. She's been working as a political 'gun for hire' organising the Greens in Auckland, but now she is keen to get her hands dirty again properly - see her blogpost, Laila Harré goes all the way. Her final place on the Greens list could be determined by a coin toss according to one proposal leaked to Cameron Slater - see: Gender Quota wars last night inside the Greens. David Farrar joins in the mocking with his own analysis and suggestion for the Greens' list selection processes - see: Green List Quotas.

The proposed new media complaints system will be dependent on the big media players opting in, which may limit how independent it can really be says Steven Price in his blogpost, One-stop-shop for media complaints - Law Commission. Another strong critique can be read in Michael Valley's post on The Standard: Against the tide.

Many predict that next year's election will be fought on the issue of jobs, but Rob Hosking at the NBR suggests an alternative economic focus: 'The 2014 election is already building up to being a Savings Election, with Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First pushing their compulsory KiwiSaver policy hard'. He sees the National Government attempting to neutralise this by announcing something big in the upcoming Budget: 'What are the odds of a sweetener not only for those who join KiwiSaver, but other savers as well? Perhaps in the form of a lower tax on the interest, dividends and any other distributions from savings vehicles?' He also predicts election promises of partial privatisation being extended to SOEs such as 'Kordia, the MetService, or Airways Corporation' - see his (paywalled) Budget 2013: Do not rule out a surprise.

The latest issue of the New Zealand Journal of Media Studies focuses on events in 2011. The freely available journal has interesting academic articles such as The Meaning of John Key and Neoliberalism, media and the return of Brash.

For an Australian's view of John Key - see Peter Hartcher's Sydney Morning Herald column, NZ shows trust is Key to popularity.

Toby Manhire has also discussed the article, and adds in an image of what Tony Abbott might look like with 'Key's trustworthy eyes' - see: John Key - inspiration for Australia's next prime minister.

Like the Press in Christchurch, the Herald is calling for a real challenger to the sitting mayor to step forward - see: Super City needs battle for mayoralty, not a shoo in.

The latest issue of Metro magazine takes on some of the issues of the upcoming local government elections in Auckland, with Matthew Hooton evaluating the problems for the right in coming up with a candidate capable of beating mayoral incumbent Len Brown, and Chris Barton explaining the problems with the new Unitary Plan. Editor Simon Wilson says the 'elections are shaping up as a most unedifying spectacle' - see Wellington wears the pants.

There were some early signs that all was not well at Solid Energy writes John Armstrong in Papers show Treasury's warnings were ignored.

The opponents of marriage equality appear to be gaining some ground in the latest poll but a massive generational split remains - see Isaac Davison' Shock poll over gay marriage bill.

David Shearer's banking blunder is already coming back to haunt him in a major way says Patrick Gower in Shearer 'getting owned' by Key. John Armstrong seems to concur in his column, Fired-up Shearer easy target for Key.

'The convergence of television and politics is a disease without a cure'. This is the argument of Gordon Campbell in his thoughtful analysis of modern politics: Blurring the Boundaries.

David Kennedy has John Key's election campaign bucket list - see: National's 2014 Election Strategy Revealed.

Former Wellington City Councillor and Green MP Sue Kedgley warns that the Government is seeking to implement its policies on increasingly 'subservient' local governments - see: Govt meddling in council affairs troubling to all.

Finally, Susan Devoy's appointment is still generating a lot of comment and analysis. Surprisingly, Gordon Campbell has positive things to say about Devoy - especially her republicanism - see: Testing times for Devoy. Another surprise has been Devoy's endorsement by the Maori Council - see Radio NZ's Maori Council backs Devoy as race relations envoy. But the most amusing satire on the appointment so far is The Civilian's Susan Devoy promises to reach out to nation's blacks.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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