Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Conservation changes a hard sell for National

Despite official line, reductions in funding are ringing alarm bells

DoC's director general Al Morrison.
DoC's director general Al Morrison.

When it comes to delivering bad news about the fauna and flora of the nation, the same advice applies as to tramping near fairy tern nesting sites: tread with meticulous care.

But the spin doctors at the Department of Conservation were clearly hoping their audience were direct descendants of the Mad Hatter when they tried to paint a restructuring that includes 130 job losses because of a $9 million funding cut as "changes to increase conservation".

When it comes to positive PR for a government, the Department of Conservation is usually the motherlode. Every dollar spent to raise a new kakapo chick or ready a kiwi for release is doubled in a return from photo opportunities.

But what nature giveth a government, she can also taketh away with alarming speed. National learned that to its peril when it put up what it believed were reasoned, logical reasons for allowing limited mining on Schedule 4 land. Nothing as crass as open cast mining, just a humble Hobbit-sized opening every here and there leading to the treasure that lies beneath.

Voters, National discovered, had quite an emotional attachment to the conservation estate, whether they partook of its delights themselves or simply liked to know it was there. It wasn't just the greenies. It was the hunters and fishers, and the dwellers of the leafy green inner suburbs, the working mothers of Pt Chevalier, the dowagers of St Heliers.

While the public have largely been unmoved by public service cuts in other areas, National must be nervous about how the DoC restructuring will play out.

DoC's director general, Al Morrison, and the Auditor General have pointed out that even under its old budget the department was shovelling the proverbial uphill in trying to halt the decline of threatened species.

As a party generally considered pro-business, National has always struggled with its green credentials, and the mining issue did leave a rather nasty taste in the mouth about its intentions. So the more believable Morrison did most of the talking about the restructure.

It didn't start well. The general impression was that the future of New Zealand's wildlife would depend on the good will of volunteers (DoC has 12,000 signed up) and, more ominously, companies.

Even Morrison's explanations for the cuts stretched the bounds of credibility. It is hard to believe his claim that even if DoC had double the budget, he would have approved the same changes. It was even harder to believe his claim to Radio New Zealand National that halving the number of resource management cases on which the department was making submissions showed a "stronger priority" was being given to that process.

Further trickery came to light when Prime Minister John Key admitted some staff would have their job titles changed so they were called "rangers". He denied it was spin devised to give the impression that front line positions were not affected.

But only the day before, in his attempt to prove just that, Smith had been telling all and sundry there would be more rangers than before, without mentioning that was by dint of job title change rather than a recruitment drive.

Much of the attention has been on DoC's move to forge more "partnerships" with private companies to help fund conservation projects. There are those who are suspicious of such deals and suggest long spoons be used. However, Morrison's arguments on the benefits of this are convincing, although even he admits that it could have a negligible effect.

DoC has $6.5 million committed in its current partnerships programme. But it is a rather ad hoc approach and there are issues of long-term security of funding.

If evidence of this was needed, it came this week with speculation the Tiwai Pt smelter could close because of Rio Tinto's inability to reach an agreement with Meridian over electricity price. Rio Tinto partners the kakapo recovery programme.

Fortunately for the kakapo, the Government intervened by promising short-term funding help, although that was primarily to save its asset sales programme rather than a gregarious parrot.

Perhaps the most disturbing issue was Smith's admission that he told DoC to cut back on opposing resource consent applications, especially one that might create jobs.

Smith told Parliament he was "not in favour of the Department of Conservation making submissions to stop people getting jobs". Local councils, he said, were best placed to decide which "landscape values" required protection, so DoC should focus on biodiversity.

It was an astonishing statement from a conservation minister, made more so by the fact that he was formerly the local government minister who introduced reforms to the Resource Management Act that down-graded the consideration given to environmental effects as opposed to economic effects.

That the greenest of National's MPs could make such a statement reflects the pressure National is under on the jobs front - pressure that will not enhance its amenability to sacrificing those for the sake of the environment.

National's chances of persuading people that it meant no harm were further hampered by other developments this week.

First came the Environment Court's interim decision to allow Bathurst Resource's bid for a 150ha opencast mine on the Denniston Plateau - but only if appropriate conditions were included to protect sensitive wildlife.

That was one of the cases DoC had not made submissions on under its new system of not bothering with "landscape" values in bids that might create jobs.

Then mining on Schedule 4 land reared its ugly head again. It's a fairly safe bet that National will not lift that ban, purely because it knows what the political cost would be.

Nonetheless, the earlier palaver left a residual suspicion about National's intentions. Unlike national parks, that suspicion is easily mined. So the Green Party did just that - releasing information it secured under the Official Information Act which revealed DoC had granted permits for mining companies to undertake low-impact exploration on some Schedule 4 land.

That forced Smith into trying to persuade people that the companies involved were simply taking a pebble or two to admire the pretty colours out of curiosity, that the land would remain under lock and key, and that the information might be useful for other possible mining in the general vicinity but not in the parks and marine reserves themselves.

He rejected suggestions that the mining companies would expect to mine what they found, saying it was blatantly clear what the Government's stance was.

Smith may have a job on his hands to convince people of that.

Even the Mad Hatters' descendants wouldn't believe that a mining company which discovered gold in them thar hills would not want to mine the stuff.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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