What is an activist and what value do they offer?

I ask the question because last weekend I read a Taranaki Daily News column that slammed Greenpeace. Mind you, the same columnist also advocated debate on farming of whales and nuclear energy as a green renewable innovation, so maybe I should have just not taken any notice.

This columnist was saying that the two New Zealanders among the Greenpeace activists in jail in Russia on piracy charges after protesting against Arctic oil drilling "got what they deserved".

It seems we have come a long way from being proud of Kiwis when they stand up for the environment - people like yachting legend Sir Peter Blake, who became an environmental hero. Would he be speaking out as an activist today?


As a teenager, I was a Greenpeace member, and believe they, along with other environmental advocates, are an essential ingredient in a healthy democracy.

In New Zealand, we have a proud history of activism whether it is our anti-nuclear stance and protesting nuclear testing in the Pacific, standing up against apartheid and the Springbok rugby tour or, more recently, marching against mining in national parks. But today we have a law limiting protest at sea - the so-called Anadarko Amendment.

When the Rainbow Warrior was bombed in Auckland Harbour in 1985 and a person killed, my activist DNA was activated. I got through to the finals at Wanganui Intermediate School's speech competition with a satirical speech on the bombing.

After 10 years working for the public service in senior roles, I have had much practice at tempering my personal views, and it was hard to overcome that acquiescence (but I can thank the National Government's undermining of the environmental principles in the Resource Management Act for changing that).

My minor activist claim to fame is that I was once called an eco-Nazi when I was the spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation on Kaimanawa horses back in 1997. Out of the blue, an old family friend kindly defended me in a letter to the editor, which I still appreciate today.

I wasn't really an activist then, I was simply representing the management view that the herd needed reducing to 500 so the rare native plants getting trampled had a chance at survival - a balanced outcome that is still in place today.

I worked closely with environmental groups when at DoC, receiving hard questions, sometimes with little grace. But I strongly believe we need activists in our communities, pushing for answers that sometimes governments don't want to give, and they can't be effective without being single-minded, determined and using attention-seeking techniques - it's their job.

One activist I remember fondly was Forest & Bird's Kevin Smith. When I answered the phone to him, I earned my keep as he could be gruff and not a little scary. But he was an excellent advocate who passed away suddenly in 2005 while working for the Minister of Conservation. I wonder what he would make of our current political and environmental challenges.


This week I was shocked by Minister of Energy and Resources Simon Bridges' interview on Campbell Live. He was aggressive, angry and appeared to be defending Anadarko and their plans for oil exploration off the Kaikoura coast, rather than answering questions about accident response preparedness.

You don't have to be anti-oil to be concerned about drilling the deepest well in the world (2.9 kilometres) in areas of seismic activity.

Unfortunately, we know how hard it was to respond to the Deepwater Horizons spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, so need to hear specifics around how it would be different if the worst-case scenario happened off Kaikoura. It seemed to me that Bridges was focused on points-scoring instead of upholding his duty as an elected Member of Parliament. I'm not the only one speaking out who isn't a traditional activist, there is a fantastic website pulling these voices together - www.newzealandstory.org.nz.

Find out whether you may be on the cusp of becoming a so-called activist, too.