Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Cuts to DoC threaten other worthy causes

Al Morrison, Director-General of the Department of Conservation. Photo / Alan Gibson
Al Morrison, Director-General of the Department of Conservation. Photo / Alan Gibson

New Zealand's philanthropists meet in Wellington today for their biennial talkfest on how best to give away money. Together, community trusts such as the ASB Trust, and foundations linked to families like the Tindalls, the McKenzies, the Todds and the Glenns, with other members of Philanthropy New Zealand, in 2011 gave away $970.6 million, or 36 per cent of the cash donated to charitable and community causes from all sources.

One wonders if Al Morrison, the director-general of the Department of Conservation, will be lurking in the corridors, his shiny new swamp-kauri begging bowl at the ready.

DoC has dabbled with commercial sponsorship - the pohutukawa-promoting Project Crimson springs to mind. But last week, in announcing the lay-off of another 140 staff, Mr Morrison signalled that seeking charity to keep the department going was now core business.

He told the Listener: "In 2005-06 we sat down and said we had to face the fact that we were a failing business - not because we were fat, not because we were wasting money, but because the job is far greater than anything the department can achieve on it own."

The Key Government's reaction to DoC's plight was the 2009 Budget which announced a four-year plan to slash its funding by $54 million. Little wonder that Auditor-General Lyn Provost's performance review last December produced a less than glowing report.

DoC, she wrote, "is not winning the battle against threats to New Zealand's indigenous species and the habitats they live in. At best, efforts to date are merely slowing the decline of biodiversity in New Zealand which is a cause for concern.

"In 2012/13, DoC will spend about $202 million on managing biodiversity. With the resources it has, DoC is able to actively manage only a small proportion (about one-eighth) of New Zealand's conservation land and about 200 of the 2800 threatened species."

With this gloomy outlook, and a Government that exacerbates the problem by slashing the conservation budget, it's little surprise that DoC is rattling the begging bowl even harder.

This time last year, then-Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson announced a $3 million deal with Air New Zealand under which the airline flew endangered species around the country to new breeding sites and invested in the development and promotion internationally of conservation programmes alongside the Great Walks network. In other words, dressing up the public face of the conservation estate, while out the back, the decline continues.

Ms Wilkinson said: "I've long said that conservation is everyone's responsibility - not just DoC's - and it's fantastic that such an iconic Kiwi business has got involved."

Perhaps it's a fair point. But what isn't fair is the way the Government is forcing DoC to use commercial and voluntary partnerships to make up for cuts in state funding.

Private funding should be used to expand the conservation cake, not act as a substitute for Government parsimony. It was a point well made by Arts Minister Chris Finlayson in September 2009, when he created a cultural philanthropy taskforce to recommend ways of increasing private giving to arts and cultural institutions "over and above - not instead of - government funding".

The resultant report, Growing the Pie, highlighted research indicating that "engaging with the corporate sector might be the most viable source of funding growth for arts organisation", which, of course, is the same group DoC seems to be targeting. This prospect must have arts and sporting and welfare and other organisations that currently fish in this particular pond very nervous.

After all, a government department offering exclusive rights to "save the kauri" or cuddle an endangered parrot, could be tough competition for a theatre company or a sports club in the incredibly fickle world of commercial sponsorship.

ASB Community Trust chief executive Jennifer Gill says commercial sponsorships do tend to move about, often related to the whims of the board chairman at the time. Or when there's a big new player in town.

"It was very obvious during the America's Cup that sponsorship for the arts really suffered. All the big money went into the America's Cup."

She says that during the present economic slump, the anecdotal evidence is that corporate sponsorship "is getting harder and harder" to pin down.

DoC is parading recent partnership deals with companies like Genesis, Fonterra, Air NZ, Mitre 10 and Dulux as the way of the future. It would be nice to think that this, and any other the department raises, is new money, not the cash that until now has been a vital lifeline to the country's arts organisations, sporting clubs and welfare groups. But in a small nation this is a big hope.

A Berl report for Philanthropy New Zealand estimates that local businesses and corporates donated $150.8 million to charitable organisations in 2010-11 and spent an additional $75.8 million in sponsorship arrangements.

Presumably DoC is not yet considered a charitable organisation, so any transfers to it will not be included. But the prospect of this large government body muscling into this area can cause alarm.

Having spectacularly failed to arrest the decline in our biodiversity, how unfortunate it would be if DoC and its Government masters ended up inflicting damage to our cultural and sporting diversity as well.

- NZ Herald

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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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