Mike Finlayson, unfortunately, is something of a rarity among those who represent us at local government level. Generally those we elect are voluble in the extreme when they want our votes, then lose their voice once they are elected. The next time we hear from them is three years later, when they want our votes again.

Mike Finlayson, who represents Te Hiku on the Northland Regional Council, is different. He's out there on an almost daily basis, telling us what he thinks and urging those he represents to join him in what he sees as a battle, which we are currently losing, to save our environment. And good for him.

His problem, however, is that those who do not agree with him, particularly in terms of using 1080 to control the pests that are destroying our native flora and fauna, would like him to shut up. And four of them had a very good go at doing that when they complained that he had breached the regional council's code of conduct when he made and drank a cup of tea with water from a stream in Russell Forest, after a 1080 drop, then poked the stick at those who claim 1080 poisons water.

The complainants, who have not been identified, and are seemingly in no hurry to change that, reckoned drinking the tea was a publicity stunt, but what really got up their noses was Mr Finlayson's statement in this newspaper that "a lot of people who are genuinely concerned about our environment and animals have had their emotions hijacked by the type of emotive propaganda that would make Goebbels proud".

Advertisement

He didn't name anyone, although some people obviously felt he was talking about them. Be that as it may, likening the campaign against 1080 to the tactics used by the Nazis' Minister of Propaganda obviously struck a nerve in some quarters. So they appealed to the referee, in the hope that the council would shut him up.

This is not a new means of defence. In fact bludgeoning critics into silence when there is no effective counter-argument is becoming all too common. This time it didn't work.

The independent commissioner who investigated the complaints on the council's behalf leaned towards the complainants, recommending, amongst other things, that Mr Finlayson be reminded that there was a difference between his personal views and those of the council, and that he should apologise to those he had offended. To its credit, the council did not agree. It resolved that if he was to be reminded about what he can and can't say, the same message should go to all councillors, and that there was no call for an apology.

Council CEO Malcolm Nicolson went further, blaming himself for the fact that the council did not have an official policy on 1080, which had left Mr Finlayson with little choice but to express his own views, or presumably to say nothing at all. Hooray!

It's worth reminding ourselves that all Mr Finlayson did was to prove, by making and drinking a cup of tea, that the 1080 dropped in Russell Forest had not poisoned one particular stream. It was not quite the death-defying act that some might have seen it as — he already had the results of testing, carried out the day after the 1080 drop, which showed that the forest's streams were not polluted with sodium fluoroacetate, albeit in one case revealing a level of one part per billion. That level is not only officially regarded as safe, but is possibly even less than would be found in a cup of tea made in the safety of one's own kitchen.

So he was fairly confident that the tea would not leave him writhing on the ground in agony. Not good enough for the complainants though. They reckoned that drinking the tea wasn't sensible and risked damaging the council's reputation. Eh? If you don't understand the logic, don't beat yourself up. Very few rational people will.

The commissioner, however, said Mr Finlayson had not stopped to think about the impacts his actions would have on his position as a councillor, or on the reputation of the council. More intelligence-defying logic. What a farce.

You have to give these people credit for their humanity though. Obviously they had great concern for Mr Finlayson's wellbeing, even if that concern is based on total ignorance of how sodium fluoroacetate reacts in water.

One suspects, however, that some of the anti-1080 lobby can give it but can't take it. The unfailingly polite and reasonable Mr Finlayson has come in for some truly horrible treatment at the keyboards of his critics, infinitely much worse than anything than he has ever said, to the writer's knowledge. Nor is the writer aware of any 1080 critic ever suggesting that those who disagree with him eschew the invective that he has suffered over the years.

The fact seems to be that those who do not agree with him are free to say what they like how they like, while he does not have the right to demonstrate that claims that 1080 poisons water are the product of propaganda that some are prepared to accept without question.

Certainly the complainants took his reference to Goebbels personally, even if he didn't identify them. The cap might fit, but these four don't want to wear it.

More fundamentally, if his role as an elected member of the Northland Regional Council, with a particular, highly-qualified interest in all things conservation, prohibits him from speaking, democracy really is in trouble.

This newspaper's opinion columns are regularly used by people to complain that their elected representatives are not doing their job. And there is some basis for saying that. Yet when one of them stands up and points out in graphic fashion that the emperor has no clothes he is castigated. Worse, he is subjected to a bid to silence him.

All this is rather more than a storm in a teacup, to coin a phrase. It is about the rights, even obligations, of people who are elected to represent us to air their opinions, and that's something we need more of, not less. Mr Finlayson has left absolutely no doubt about where he stands on 1080; how many of his elected colleagues can say the same? Whether it is Mr Nicolson's fault or not, and one would have to say it is not, that the council doesn't have an official position on 1080, we are entitled to know where the elected members stand.

We are entitled to know more than we do about where our elected representatives stand on a lot of issues. It is right and proper that elected members of any authority accept the majority view of that authority on any issue once a position is formally taken, but that does not apply here, and does not apply in all manner of other circumstances.

Mike Finlayson's views on 1080 are genuine, strongly held, and based on scientific evidence. His critics might be equally passionate, but are not so well informed. He has repeatedly displayed his courage; it isn't easy to maintain a stand that attracts the vitriol that he routinely receives, but he sticks to his guns. And good on him.

If someone wants to argue that he was foolish to drink his cup of tea made from potentially poisoned water, let them argue that from an informed, scientific point of view. If they can't do that it is their democratic right to continue disagreeing with him from a position of ignorance, but resorting to the rule book to silence him reveals them to be what they are, the champions of a cause that is entirely built on propaganda.