DOC’s Director-General has a new ‘bluegreen’ conservation vision: follow the money to business partnership, because the country’s broke, and along the way further downsize his own little threadbare empire. What kind of Chief Executive is this?

“If we were truly successful I think the taxpayer funding of the protection of New Zealand’s biodiversity would be minimal,” says Al Morrison. Another mark of success, he suggests, is that the Department of Conservation would be smaller.

What?

Greens co-leader Russel Norman called the Director-General’s speech at Lincoln University last month “brave”. He meant that it departed from core government ‘balancing the economy and the environment’ policy. The speech said that the economy depends on the environment, therefore, we have to put the environment first. That's Green party, not government policy. Morrison also traversed one or two other Green policies.

But I myself think that Nick Smith, at least, would have been a happy man. It was a ‘bluegreen’ speech.

I asked Green party conservation spokesperson Kevin Hague for comment, and got none — which might or might not have been pointed silence. I, too, have been hatching this post for a month — trying to figure out if the speech was a platitudinous non-event, or a green-painted Trojan horse.

Morrison says that “for all our exaltations, we keep on trashing the place”. He points to biodiversity loss: “That we are relatively Clean and Green and 100 Percent Pure, is little credit to our deliberate efforts. The brand is largely available to us because we have had relatively little time and few people … But we are as guilty as any party of depleting and degrading our natural capital.”

Also,“New Zealand has been living beyond its means for 37 years in a row, and now it has caught up with us. Our economy is dangerously exposed, seriously out of balance, and facing huge adjustments.” In the 2009 budget, DOC had a $54 million funding cut. Morrison’s future funding aspirations are cut down to similar size: there won’t be much of it, he thinks.

But he wants more conservation, and says that to get it, we’ll need to rationalise it differently: “Unseemly though it may appear to nature lovers, we have to appeal at a less lofty level.”

He refers to other non-GDP focused wealth measures: “The way we conventionally describe and measure economic progress is an incentive to ignore the impacts of unsustainable natural resource use”. Failure to correct this, he argues, will affect our wealth: our “gambling with nature’s tolerance” will bring down GDP in the end, as well as the environment.

There is, in other words, a business case for change, and he says that businesses — some "enthusiastically", some "willingly", some "grudgingly" — are starting to see market advantage in this conservation lark.

He wants to weave conservation into the fabric of our thinking and decision-making: “sustainable management of natural resources is not just about nice things to do when time and discretionary resources are available”. He wants a business hook-up:

We have … established a commercial business unit in the department that will seek out the opportunities and work with the business leaders who are committed to achieving greater prosperity for New Zealand through an enhanced environment. True to form, it has attracted ideological reaction from those who see conservation and business as incompatible bedfellows. Those who would refuse to see beyond the intrinsic argument for nature protection have a responsibility to provide a realistic alternative route to financing the conservation work that needs to be done on a scale that cannot realistically be achieved by taxpayers alone.

He may have, wryly, had in mind last summer’s “desecration” and “tragedy” at Coromandel’s Cathedral Cove, that “tainted the untouched paradise”.

Bad choice of 'bedfellows' metaphor, though. Since he, presumably, wasn’t wanting to imply anyone would be getting screwed by anyone else …

You might say I've already gotten quite used to looking past other, non-intrinsic, more 'base' rationalisations. One hears quite a lot about 'the children', which rather misses the point — because it’s still self-interest, still all about us, our species. But whatever works, and gets the job done, in the end.

I am, nonetheless, a bit beady about his speech.

I want to know what, in practice, he means. I mean, if he's going to dump a 20-year old statutory principle about intrinsic conservation value from its lofty height, in favour of getting down and dirty on the ground with the practical outcomes, I think it's not unreasonable to ask what those practical outcomes will be — but the speech didn't say.

Short of that, it just offers up a new sort of idealistic holy grail; and along the way, King Al is bound to tangle with all sorts of bad guys, as well as making friends with some good ones.

He says: “The biggest obstacle to giving substance to [an awakening by New Zealand business that nature-friendly practices are our market advantage] is the lack of baselines and metrics that can be used to assess and manage the impact on biodiversity of an activity at a place.” This sounds benign, like DOC holding hands with business, to “quantify the impact on biodiversity of development activity at a place”, and help lead them along the right road.

The speech wasn’t just about halting biodiversity decline, though. It was about funding conservation.

So, will he make the estate work harder for its keep, by inviting more business on to it, to generate funding?

Ironically, that sounds more like the old mindset, than a new one, where the intrinsic value of conservation’s ecosystem services and other services is ignored, or not given much weight. But why not, as long as it doesn’t damage the intrinsic value, and might help it? Is 'filthy commerce' itself damage?

What about whether physically damaging activity somewhere, not necessarily on conservation land, can be 'offset' by another, different kind of good activity? Morrison offers mining and energy as examples, and there are half a dozen recent such examples, of those industries trying to buy off massive irreversible damage: the Mokihinui River hydro proposal; Solid Energy’s Stockton and other activities; the Schedule 4 mining royalty and conservation fund proposals. Doesn't sound good. Can the extinction of a species be paid for, by improving a habitat somewhere else?

Or (in the light of his comments about DOC ideally being smaller), does he see this business-friendliness embracing some public-private partnerships? Might this give rise to questions, from time to time, about who owns the ‘conservation estate’, like Tuhoe’s claim to the Urewera National Park?

Al Morrison, as most will know, was RNZ National’s former political editor, a journalist. He salted his new recipe with enough Green ideas that it got little cover — made it just down at heel and wack enough, frankly, to marginalise it more than it deserved, and probably about as much as he wanted.  

Al Morrison, the man now standing guard over the conservation estate, seems primed to open the gate, it's just not clear how wide — whereupon, any government so inclined might drive its ideological truck right through.

That’s a good enough reason to keep a beady eye on it, and him.

Comments (16)

by peasantpete on November 02, 2010
peasantpete

This government would rather DoC did not exist.

The Minister for Tourism might see some "spin off" in a minor way.

His caucus and party would strip mine the entire country if they thought there was something worth selling.

DoC has always been under funded, This government is deliberately marginalising it.

I cannot wait for "private/public" conservation land and whoopee dee woo, privately owned conservation land.

 

Then "the market" will decide the value of conservation land.

 

Nick Smith's cup will run over with nectar.

by stuart munro on November 03, 2010
stuart munro

“New Zealand has been living beyond its means for 37 years in a row, and now it has caught up with us. Our economy is dangerously exposed, seriously out of balance, and facing huge adjustments.”

I have seen arguments like this before, and I think it is important to determine if they are sincere, or an opportunistic tilt at a policy target. If NZ really has been living beyond its means, and there is a credible intention to balance the books, we might expect Al Morrison (along with most other senior civil servants) to be taking a substantial pay cut. Belt tightening all round. But I've heard nothing to indicate that this is happening. So either the financial distress is not real, or our public managers are not taking the requisite action. Neither is a pretty picture.

by Claire Browning on November 03, 2010
Claire Browning

Well … I do think that there’s a point about what would happen, or how things would look, if this was not just expediency, but I’m not so sure it’s the one about taking the hit personally.

On the D-G’s own logic, that he’s asking us all to accept (and saying business is starting to accept), wealth creation capacity follows from conservation, therefore it should be a priority -- for business, he says.

But on the same logic, it would/should be also a top funding priority for this government (including a relative priority, within the same/shrinking money pot -- since there seems always to be an extra $20 million, $1.7 billion, and so on, for ‘priorities’).

As a good Chief Executive/public servant, he might be -- probably is -- making that funding argument behind closed doors and failing, just not telling us about it. But in public, he seems to have swallowed this budget-constrained business-friendly policy hook, line and sinker, without exploring its implications.

Not sure whether to sheet this home to him or his Ministers, more likely the latter I'd say, but it’s the true definition of expediency -- using the argument for some purposes but not others.

Politically cynical, too: robustly managing the D-G’s money expectations, so that as a true believer in conservation, he’ll have to find another route, and what do you know, it just happens to be the one that fits the ideology.

Well-intentioned or not, correct in terms of practical benefits or not, there’s no getting away from the fact that it's a fundamental de facto revision of conservation policy (valuing conservation because it creates wealth, not intrinsically). 

You just have to hope that Morrison is freely and frankly defending that before Ministers, even if we don't hear about it.

by Claire Browning on November 03, 2010
Claire Browning

An email to me this morning describes impressions of Al Morrison (based on some slight casual acquaintance) as "genuine, very no-nonsense"; points out that part of DOC's role is doing what the government tells it to do, which is "public knowledge and bloggers,  journos etc need to be aware of the distinction if they are to make informed comment"; and that I may "need to look higher than Al to see who the real gatekeeper is".

I responded that I agreed with all of the above; was somewhat familiar with the role of a public servant; and I hoped my comment earlier in the morning had clarified.

However, as befits a good CE, it is impossible to figure out how much of his public speech was him, and how much government policy. [But the 'smaller department' part was surprising, and even if he was right about everything else, I don't think works. It's going to take a lot of auditing, to make sure business is keeping its promises.]

It ought to follow, therefore, that I am not attacking him personally. It would be my impression, like the emailer's, that he is a highly intelligent, genuinely well-intentioned, thoroughly likeable man.

It does not, however, follow that one should not explore whether his vision for keeping conservation on track will really do that, or lead us off into the wilds somewhere. I say 'his vision', on the basis that he stood up for it publicly.
[PS. And perhaps also fair to assume that if he was doing his work through gritted teeth, hating it, he probably would have declined. I would deduce that he's in fact taking a relatively neutral stance, about how we get to a conservation goal -- again, exactly as he must and should -- and trying to find a way to get to a win-win place for everybody, and make everybody excited about it or at least accept its necessity, including the more ideologically inclined.]

That's the talking point -- not whether Al is a nice man, or DOC is doing a brave job in tough circumstances. Both true.

by Chris on November 03, 2010
Chris

Al, formerly a brilliant journalist, is also an excellent and deeply thoughtful civil servant. Some important points were well made in his speech.

1. NZ, with much of the responsibility left to DOC, has not done a particularly good job protecting the environment.

2. Business and public goals are often aligned. Most businesses are strongly incentivised to protect the environment.

3. By working with business, DOC can achieve better outcomes, at a lower cost to the taxpayer.

by Claire Browning on November 03, 2010
Claire Browning

Your assessment of Al is not disputed, by me. Or anyone else, as far as I know.

Business and public goals are often aligned. Most businesses are strongly incentivised to protect the environment.

Is that so? Why don't they, then?

NZ, with much of the responsibility left to DOC, has not done a particularly good job protecting the environment.

Agreed. However, DOC was only established in its present form in 1987, and arguably, has never been properly prioritised or funded. I'm not sure I'm quite ready to leap to the conclusion that this was a failed experiment, before starting on the next experiment. It's going to take a bit more than two-line ex cathedra assertions, I'm afraid.

By working with business, DOC can achieve better outcomes, at a lower cost to the taxpayer.

Moot.

by Save Happy Valley on November 03, 2010
Save Happy Valley

Not sure working with business is always better. Some business is bad for the environment (and climate) and some is good. Acid Mine Drainage and habitat loss from coal strip mining is very costly... so that would be seen perhaps as costly for taxpayers, wheras ecotourism and conservation land might be seen as a win win.

It depends re: 'By working with business, DOC can achieve better outcomes, at a lower cost to the taxpayer.'

If for example DOC work with companies that have a negative effect on say pristine conservation land and those companies make a private profit and leave a lot of the clean up costs to the taxpayer then that is not a better outcome.

DOC is not just about protecting conservation land, and conservation in New Zealand, it is also part of Government enviromental policy. If the RMA does not factor in climate change, then coal mining on DOC (conservation) land could be seen as detrimental to New Zealand.

Among other questions raised by Al's rather powerfull speech is if DOC and Conservation is underfunded and underprioritised what should be done? More money allocated to DOC? More partnerships (ie with Iwi.. Tuhoe and the Ureweras being one possibility, and with business.. eco tourism etc) and with private or non state conservation partnership (community too) approaches..

Should DOC be better funded? better resourced or underfunded and underesourced?

In reality Labour and National have often placed Environment and Conservation portfolios low down in rank, and as Chris says: we get a bad job out of it. This has been rather land conservation focused, of course New Zealand also needs to have the kind of discussion Al has began about Marine Conservation as well.

It would be interesting what Kevin Hague does have to say Claire if you get a late response from him.

Is National conservation policy any better than their lame duck climate policy? What are the views of the Maori Party.

by Judy Martin on November 04, 2010
Judy Martin

On facebook Kevin said something like - I don't always agree with Al Morrison, but i'm delighted to see him taking a brave stand here. It was in relation to the GP press release, and was the first I heard of the speech.

You said of Al Morrison "He salted his new recipe with enough Green ideas that it got little cover — made it just down at heel and wack enough, frankly, to marginalise it more than it deserved, and probably about as much as he wanted." My initial response was that it was the other way round - he put in the commercial stuff to get it past the minister and ensure the bigger message of economy=environment got out.

But Al's always been a hero of mine from the time of his weekly chats with Kim Hill on Nine to Noon. Time may tell what he meant.

by Claire Browning on November 04, 2010
Claire Browning

My initial response was that it was the other way round - he put in the commercial stuff to get it past the minister and ensure the bigger message of economy=environment got out ...

That may be so Judy (environment=economy, though?), and you're right: only time will tell whether the chicken or the egg, if you like, came first, or maybe we won't ever be able to tell.

He is a bit of a hero of mine, too, just quietly. I mourned his 'passing' from the airwaves, for ages, finally got re-enamoured with Kathryn Ryan, and then she moved on, as well ...

So I am very unhappy, actually, that people feel I have been too rough.

However. Trying again.

1. 'Green' things.
If I get a "late response" from Kevin, it would of course be posted, @SHV. His responses though are normally pretty quick. @Judy, thanks for the Facebook update. 'Frog' and some of the Green MPs also keep an eye on Pundit. As usual, they could log in, and comment for themselves.

I did not mean to imply that the greener aspects of Al's speech are in fact 'wack', as opposed to that being the media perception of them (or maybe media just judges, accurately, that the general public is just not that interested in this stuff). Or to imply, either, that his views on those matters were not genuinely held.

On the contrary, there could be no other reason to frame his whole speech round them ("bravely"), at some risk of being pulled up for being out of line with government policy. Smallish risk perhaps, given the above, but still significant -- and Dom Post did put him on the front page.

Who knows: maybe he did want it on the front page, not marginalised at all. Maybe he decided the price of getting conservation on the front page, where it needs to be, was being a bit controversial on the govt policy front (but in the end, they didn't focus on that bit anyway).

2. So an elegant and savvy speech, as well as brave -- but still dodgy.
Actually, I don't reckon we need an ulterior motive ("he put in the commercial stuff to get it past the minister ..."). Occam's razor, and all that.

It was a speech about the state of conservation, and how to do it better -- given the present realities, economic, and political. As CE, past a certain point (free and frank advice) he doesn't get the luxury of judging whether he likes the policy or not. Whether economically driven, politically, or both, that's the present reality.

As I read it between the lines, he was saying, actually, the political reality doesn't matter. Even with a friendlier government, the economics will still be the same.

I don't quite buy that, because of the thing about relative funding priorities, above.

However, as CE, he has to do his best to make the best of, and be persuasive about, the political reality, and he's doing a damn fine job of that.

But ... in a way, it's because he's doing his public service diligently and well, that I'm also saying, there's an element of threat. He taking a neutral stance, and being constructive, as he must -- in the face of real risks, to conservation philosophy.

He's not free to talk too frankly, in public, about those risks; he's doing his job. For better or worse, I'm trying to do mine. I have some confidence he understands this (however much he deplores the amateurishness).

3. The risks. Can we stop talking about Al Morrison yet?
The risks may be no worse than the other, different risks and their rubbish results we presently live with. That's what I wanted to discuss.

Are they worse, or just different? Is there a fundamental incompatibility, even when you try to be pragmatic about it? Does putting an economic price on the value of conservation inevitably, at some point, have a tendency to undermine the part about intrinsic value?

And as I asked in the post: what outcomes, in practice, are we actually looking at here? The speech on that -- the business end of things, if you like -- was awfully vague, and it does make a difference.

I'm open to whatever, really, but it worries me deeply, which ought to be a worry for Al, 'cause actually, I'm one of the pragmatic ones.

by Claire Browning on November 04, 2010
Claire Browning

Oh, and by the way. I may be about to dig myself yet further into a hole here, but the urge is just too overwhelming ...

On the matter of the Trojan horse. Don't you think, I might have a point? Just a little one? I mean, from Russel on down: Greens are, apparently, all so delighted by hearing a man who speaks truth to power giving public voice to some Green policies, all the stuff about "desecration" and "tragedy" and so on has suddenly been abandoned? WTF?

by Save Happy Valley on November 04, 2010
Save Happy Valley

The way Nandor put it was re have a choice: unsustainable economy vs sustainable economy.. ie Green Jobs, clean energy, conservation etc vs coal mining, more motorways, offshore deep sea drilling, seabed mining, dirty industrial dairy and short term economics..

For Al's words to be what Russel Norman wants them to be, we need a green economy.. Bill English and Nick Smith are not there, neither is David Cuniliff or Phill Goff... Gerry Brownlee's outdated ideas still dominate the National Party, and labour has similar ideas re coal mining and so on.

Untill Russel Norman's ideas are part of government, conservation will not be a priority in New Zealand, and Al Morrison will be unable to be the eco warrior some of us may want him to be.

 

 

by Save Happy Valley on November 04, 2010
Save Happy Valley

Claire: do you think Al Morrison would agree to you interviewing him at some stage?

by Claire Browning on November 05, 2010
Claire Browning

Don't know. He probably has a low opinion! And any number of proper journalists to talk to, assuming he wanted to spill more beans.

I was considering asking him, but there's another post I think I should write, first.

One step at a time -- and baby steps, at that.

by Save Happy Valley on November 05, 2010
Save Happy Valley

For the record, when I had a brief chat to him at the Forest and Bird AGM this year he thought Lignite was ok and said that some of the coal mining proposals on conservation land on the West Coast were not good ideas. Your standard of journalism has been really good, and most proper in my view :)

by Claire Browning on November 05, 2010
Claire Browning

He thought lignite was ok, eh? Interesting.

Directly, it's true, there's probably not much of a conservation angle. Southland biodiversity strategy: running sheep and dairy cows. [PS. That was a joke.]

Indirectly, on the other hand, no greater biodiversity threat than tipping over 2 degrees.

Better add that to the list of questions ...

Your standard of journalism has been really good, and most proper in my view ...

There was an element of misjudgement. Who knew Al Morrison was up there with Sir Ed Hillary, Peter Jackson, and God? Possibly in that order ...

by Claire Browning on November 05, 2010
Claire Browning

This interview thing. Surely, there are some tv producer-types reading Pundit. Surely, there are political editors. Trust me: this is really interesting. Sunday morning viewers would love it.

All my favourite interviews end with a bit of blood on the floor. If I go and see Al Morrison, it's probably going to be mine. I'd so much rather be spectator to a scrap with a bit of equivalence ...

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