Key promised no state assets would be sold or partly sold in the first term of his government. But that’s in effect what’s happening, to our biggest state asset of them all
“Wheeeeee! We’re balancing the environment and the economy!” shrieked the little girl dressed in green. Then she saw Gerry Brownlee, lumbering towards the see-saw, smiling his small wry smile.
We know now what it means, to balance the economy and the environment. It’s a zero-sum game: to make economic progress by sacrificing a bit more nature, and then another bit, and then perhaps another …
Pre-election, prospective government Ministers, mainly Nick Smith and the Prime Minister, talked a lot about this “balance”. It was waffly political double-talk that, depending on your point of view, either gave the government no explicit mandate for particular policies, or a comprehensive mandate to pursue whatever their unspoken agenda.
Here are four examples, which are all about conservation and Crown pastoral lands – collectively, our biggest state asset. Around a third of the country is protected or partly protected. For most of the last decade, until late last year, tourism was New Zealand’s biggest foreign exchange earner.
1. Mining Schedule 4 protected areas. Early next month, Gerry Brownlee’s discussion document will tell us the results of the Crown mineral wealth “stocktake”, and ask us for public views. Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act protects the most special areas – national parks, world heritage areas, wildlife sanctuaries, marine reserves – from mining access or exploration. It’s clear already that there must be recommendations about either opening up Schedule 4, or removing parcels of land from it. Brownlee says millions of hectares were added by the last government, which may not all meet the high threshold proper for Schedule 4. Perhaps, we’re being massaged towards some egregious proposal. Perhaps, this is just the government making sure that whatever we learn in March, it will be such an anti-climax that the eco-warriors donning their battle armour end up looking sheepish. According to Radio New Zealand reports this morning [not online], it may be the latter, with private polling making it clear to National that the full monty approach to mining under consideration was out of step with public opinion.
2. Commercial concessions on conservation land. DOC is regearing itself towards attracting more concession holders, who pay DOC to run their businesses on conservation land, and more energy generation projects. The fears expressed – from various sources, including Green spokesperson Kevin Hague and the Dominion Post (not normally noticeably a bastion of green politics) – are that low budget lifestyle trampers will be crowded out by lucrative tourists, and DOC choices will be driven by impecuniosity, not conservation values.
3. Tenure review in the McKenzie country. Material released to the Christchurch Press under the Official Information Act has shown that DOC is seeking less land than previously in the tenure review process currently under way for five McKenzie high country stations. These were internal emails, not a public whinge. They cited two reasons. First, funding restrictions: DOC cannot afford any longer to take on new lands with high ongoing management costs, and therefore needs to take a pragmatic approach. Second, the need to show DOC is working within the new government’s policies, as reflected in “statements made by Ministers”.
4. Irrigating Crown pastoral land for dairy conversion. According to this report, resource consent applications have been filed for tens of thousands of hectares of the McKenzie district to be irrigated for dairy farming. This video shows what the country is supposed to look like, and how it’s changing. Almost half of the district is Crown pastoral land. It’s not clear whether it follows that half of the “tens of thousands of hectares” in question are Crown-owned; responsible Minister Maurice Williamson says there are no such applications under the Crown Pastoral Land Act (which requires consent for land-changing farming activities). However, there may be a gap in the Act. It doesn’t refer to irrigation. Permission has to be sought for soil disturbance, including by cropping, top dressing, burning off, stocking type and density changes, and so on. It would be a peculiar result if conversion of tussock country to grass, simply by watering it, was not covered. But if such applications were made in the future by a lease holder, or if lease holders decided to test the limits of the Act by omitting to make an application, it is not clear the Act would address it. Williamson’s performance was disturbing, showing what might charitably be described as a loose grasp of the scope of his own Act, an unwavering commitment to a robustly hands-off approach, and no interest at all in pursuing any legislative fix.
You might think there’s nothing wrong with making hard choices in hard times by balancing the environment and the economy. Up to a point, I agree. But if you watch for a while, you can see that the environment never gets a net gain in this “balance”. Without fail, what superficially look like wins, are reparations for damage previously caused, or funding previously cut.
I’ve no problem with a case-by-case assessment of whether the scope of Schedule 4 is right; no problem with discussing whether the 13% of the country the schedule currently comprises should be reduced to 12 or raised to 20. Because some things are inviolate, I think the schedule needs to exist. I’d want a more convincing reason for a reduction in protected areas than “x is wrong, because the rest of the world does y”. And I note that, according to material released to the Green Party last year under the Official Information Act, “DoC considers that due to the high conservation values present there are very few places currently listed on Schedule 4 where mining activity might be considered appropriate”.
I’ve no comprehensive objection to all mines. I think it makes a difference what we’re mining for. By Brownlee’s own account, he was galvanised by the sniff of a couple of hundred billion dollars worth of minerals, around half of which is lignite, which is a low-grade highly-polluting, chemically unstable coal – a double hit on the environment. I can see that there are advantages, like correcting New Zealand’s high energy dependence, in prospecting for oil. I doubt we would reap those advantages; I want to know first, before we dig, how the government will ensure we do. I really object to the poor process that must follow from senior Ministers’ closed minds. I wrote about this here on Pundit, and saw it again in the Prime Minister’s 2010 statement to Parliament. He said, 'we’ll consult, but it’s happening'.
I’ve no blanket aversion to commercial operators or energy generation in national parks. The high principle of intrinsic value doesn’t really work, when we’re already making lots of money out of them, in the form of tourism. But there’s one big caveat: provided robust controls are put around permission for, and monitoring of, those activities.
These are the several things I think are very wrong.
The tenor of all these discussions shows money talking. Key misled his voters, when he undertook not to sell state assets in whole or part this term. Indirectly, this is exactly what he’s doing, exposing our biggest asset of all to the risk the highest bidder will win. Next time we all get antsy about privatizing some lesser SOE, I would just say, fuck the SOE, frankly, because we’re doing it to something far more valuable.
He’s dressing up 19th century colonial thinking in the 21st century language of “step change”. This is not “step change” (whatever that may be), it’s the old paradigm on which this country was built, about exploiting finite resources to maximum effect, and the dusty mantras of “growth” and “catching Australia”.
It’s been framed in terms of spending political capital. It’s our capital being spent, undermining the very assets that make us rich. As I found here, when the World Bank ranked New Zealand second to Saudi Arabia, in terms of natural wealth per capita, 19% of that wealth was attributable to protected areas, only 3% to subsoil assets. And in fact, it’s not even “ours”, but another inter-generational wealth transfer. Mining or dairy might give us a bounce now, by pillaging finite resources. What happens when they run out?
And I keep thinking about something else Nick Smith said a lot during the election campaign. “It’s not National Party policy to dam the last river,” he kept saying, “of course we won’t dam the last river”. What I’m wondering is: where, short of that, will it stop?