Minister perhaps bit off more than he could chew with mining policy

Gerry Brownlee's search for El Dorado in this country's supposedly mineral-ridden national parks has so far been more akin to King Midas in reverse. The only gold to be seen is the colour of the custard to which the whole exercise has rapidly been turning.

Brownlee's Cabinet colleagues will surely be asking each other how someone of his seniority and political acumen has lost control of what was his political baby from the start.

Brownlee's plan to lift the ban on mining in national parks and on other parcels of land of high conservation value has become - much to Labour's and the Greens' delight - the story which refuses to die. And there is plenty more to come with things still only at the discussion document stage.

In a week dominated by a major report on the liquor laws and a gob-smacking hike in tobacco tax, the continuing melee over mining still barged its way onto the daily political agenda. A confusing press statement and map issued by his officials in the Ministry of Economic Development forced Brownlee to offer further reassurance that Mt Aspiring National Park will remain untouched.

Next up was Jan Wright, Parliament's official environmental watchdog, who rubbished Brownlee's discussion document as incoherent.

That report, which has so far drawn more than 14,000 submissions from the public, details the portions of protected land which might be removed from the "Schedule Four" list of areas in the Crown Minerals Act currently off limits to mining operations.

Wright slammed the document as inadequate in assessing the real ecological impact of mining in specific localities, deficient in the way it measures the value of minerals claimed to be underground and unacceptable in recommending additions to Schedule Four as some kind of quid pro quo for taking other land out of that protection.

Her parting shot was to warn she would be back with a far more extensive report on the mining of the Conservation estate around the time the Cabinet would be making final decisions on which areas would be removed from Schedule Four.

If all that was not enough, the Opposition seized on Cabinet papers which revealed Brownlee and Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson had originally proposed that significant chunks of the Coromandel and the Mt Aspiring, Kahurangi, and Rakiura national parks be lopped off Schedule Four - close to 470,000ha in total.

That option would have seen almost all Department of Conservation-administered land in the Coromandel - about 30 per cent of the peninsular - wiped from the schedule.

Those sort of figures were clearly way beyond some ministers' comfort levels. The discussion document was delayed so it could be substantially diluted to just 7000ha. Brownlee then failed to do the necessary sales job once the discussion document had been released.

It was always going to be an almighty task however, convincing people that there is a direct link between inviting the mining industry to burrow into pristine tracts of the Conservation estate and New Zealanders becoming materially better off.

New Zealand is littered with evidence of the boom-bust nature of some mining operations. Mining is a vital industry. But suddenly highlighting it as paving the way to economic nirvana jars with the message force-fed to New Zealanders for more than two decades - that economic salvation lies in developing enterprises based on innovation and adding value, not commodities at the mercy of international price fluctuations.

The lesson other ministers will draw from this shemozzle is not necessarily just the obvious one of political salesmanship, however.

Brownlee's difficulties will confirm in their minds that when the Government wants policy advice on major and tricky reforms, it should seek that advice from outside the core public service, rather than rely on departmental officials as he did.

Labour began this process with Helen Clark going over the heads of the Justice Department by using Sir Geoffrey Palmer's quasi-autonomous Law Commission as a policy think-tank on law and order measures.

But National has taken things a whole lot further. Its de facto "privatisation" of policy advice is manifest in the plethora of task forces, working parties and ministerial reference groups comprising experts drawn from outside the public service.

That is where the action is. The bureaucrats are finding themselves sidelined across the whole spectrum of policy development.

A ministerial group chaired by former Treasury boss Murray Horn has driven the restructuring of the Ministry of Health, such that he now chairs the new national health board that he recommended be established to streamline the delivery of health services.

A working group of tax experts laid the foundations for this month's Budget, while a welfare working group set up by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has been tasked with coming up with policies to tackle long-term welfare dependence.

This approach has numerous political advantages which stretch beyond just tailoring the membership to get the recommendations a minister wants.

Inevitably, the ideological make-up of such task forces means the ensuing recommendations may be quite radical. If so, the minister can simply reject them out of hand. Alternatively, he or she can leave them hanging both to gauge public reaction and soften the public up to them being implemented. Crucially, the minister does not have to share ownership of any proposals until it is safe to do so. He or she can keep a healthy distance from any barmy stuff. That is not the case with policies which emanate in the public service. The first the public gets to hear of them is when a minister announces them following what is usually months of behind-the-scenes work by officials.

If the public does not like the policies, then the minister alone takes the rap. That has been Brownlee's fate. His wish to expand mining on the Conservation estate where a significant amount of New Zealand's mineral potential is thought to lie was matched if not exceeded by his enthusiastic officials.

In a move which was downright cruel, the Ministry of Economic Development and the Department of Conservation were brought together to form a joint working group of officials to conduct the stocktake of Schedule Four.

By definition of the group's task, DoC, as the agency advocating for conservation, could at best fight only a rearguard action. It failed to do even that. The result was recommendations which went way beyond what the Prime Minister would have found politically palatable.

The subsequent delays in the discussion document's release meant media speculation of Cabinet division.

To cap things off, the bureaucratic infighting created a climate for the leaking of the Government's intentions in order to embarrass Brownlee.

In contrast, a leak from a task force seemingly operating independently is not going to give a minister much angst.

Leaks do nothing for National's trust of public servants. Leaks will only make it more likely ministers will opt for outside advice, leaving officials as a backstop gauging any potential pitfalls.

All in all, the privatisation of policy-making is another dagger plunged into a public service already reeling under injurious cost-cutting pressures.

Little wonder then that the centre-left - wedded to the state playing a major role in social and economic policy - sees another, less visible agenda operating here.