Notes from Kate Wilkinson’s recent talk to a Christchurch tramping club raise real questions about the job she is doing as conservation minister

Note: This post has been edited to reflect questions about the source material.


I have here notes from Mrs Wilkinson’s talk to the Peninsula Tramping Club, on May 11, 2010. The notes, which purport to include a number of direct quotes, came to me via a friend, whose friend attended the talk. The friend of the friend, who wasn’t the note taker, was asked to confirm the notes’ accuracy, and did so.

You can read the notes for yourself here, on They are shards taken out of context, which no doubt affects their weight.

Clearly, I would have preferred to read the whole speech for myself, but it has not been publicly released. Nor could I find any other sort of statement of any kind from Mrs Wilkinson describing her approach to conservation policy, that might help in assessing whether her position has been misunderstood or misrepresented. If the Minister would like to do that for Pundit, it would be most welcome.

Meantime, I think it is fair enough to ask: what is the Minister of Conservation’s job? And on the evidence we have to date -- which isn’t confined to the disputed notes -- how well is she doing it?

Within a fortnight or so after the Department of Conservation (DOC) had announced its decision to appeal the Mokihinui consents -- the grant of the consents, not just their conditions -- Mrs Wilkinson was talking to the tramping club. There may have been some unfortunate coincidence of language. On the Mokihinui hydro proposal, she’s said to have observed that the “lake will look stunning”. Compare Meridian’s language here (“the stunning new lake”, at 2.45).

Mrs Wilkinson could find herself a decision-maker at some future date because, regardless of the Resource Management Act consents now being appealed, no activity shall be carried out in a conservation area, unless authorised by a DOC concession. Mrs Wilkinson confirmed this, according to the notes, saying the Mokihinui application still hasn’t come across her desk.

This fact raises an issue quite independent of any dispute about the veracity of the notes. DOC arguably does not need to appeal. It is laudably transparent for them to do so (and to be allowed by the government to do so), and the appeal has been welcomed by conservationists, if not perhaps taxpayers. But the Mokihinui hydro proposal, if opposed on conservation grounds, could be much more simply and cheaply resolved by Mrs Wilkinson declining the concession.

And we are also told, by Mrs Wilkinson’s predecessor Tim Groser in answer to a Parliamentary Question late last year, that a land exchange is being considered by DOC -- finding another piece of land to swap, to see if the government can facilitate this development. Which seems odd, if they are simultaneously spending taxpayer and conservation dollars opposing it. It has been said publicly here on Pundit, and privately to me by other sources, that people understand or believe this issue is still live.

A key issue around land exchange is that this is a solely Ministerial decision, given effect by Gazette notice (as opposed to legislation), with no public consultation requirement. The importance of everybody having confidence that Mrs Wilkinson is approaching it robustly is paramount.

In terms of the Conservation Act, and matters set out by DOC as the basis for its appeal, the land exchange option seems to sit very awkwardly. Under section 16A, the Minister shall not authorise any such exchange unless satisfied that it will enhance the conservation values of land managed by DOC, and promote the purposes of the Conservation Act; and according to case law, it is not open to the Minister within those purposes to consider social and economic factors.

But it might be explained by what was reportedly said to the tramping club. The notes allege that after discussing Mokihinui, Canterbury water, and Schedule 4 mining, Mrs Wilkinson’s word of the evening was “balance”. As the note taker would have it, she said a Conservation Minister’s role was to bring “balance to conservation as well as protection”; and that we need to “make a better use of what we have, without ruining what we have”.

If any such assertion was made by any Conservation Minister, it would be quite wrong, in terms of the statutes she administers. It is expressly not the function of the holder of that portfolio to balance the environment and the economy in terms of National party policy, or to bring any other sort of balance to conservation, beyond that permitted under the relevant Acts, which are tipped heavily towards protection.

DOC functions, on which the DOC mission statement is based, are set out in section 6 of the Act. They include:

  • to manage land and resources for conservation purposes,
  • to advocate the conservation of natural and historic resources and promote the benefits,
  • to foster the use of natural and historic resources for recreation, and to allow their use for tourism.


These are very limited permitted uses, that are permissible only so long as they are not inconsistent with conservation. Similarly, section 4 of the National Parks Act and the ‘conservation’ definition in the Conservation Act, are founded on ‘intrinsic worth’ and ‘intrinsic values’— the point being, such land has value in and of itself, even if no use to us at all.

Others have reacted similarly to encounters with Mrs Wilkinson.

Gary Taylor of the Environmental Defence Society said in the New Zealand Herald: “when a member of the board of inquiry into the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement was so exasperated by comments by Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson and took the unprecedented step of releasing it publicly, her knee-jerk response was to say that protecting the coast didn’t sit well with the Government’s economic development agenda.”

Mr Woollaston, the board of inquiry member, said in his own release that Wilkinson had shown “a surprising lack of awareness of her statutory responsibilities -- both in relation to the review of the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement and to the protection of coastal values ...” and went on to explain why.

Gerry Brownlee recently said it is irrelevant that one Minister (himself) might be ranked number 3 in the Cabinet, and another Minister (Mrs Wilkinson) 20. Anyone who knows Kate Wilkinson, he said, will know that this is nonsense: she is “formidable” around the Cabinet table.

When will she let the rest of us in on that well-kept secret? Being the butt of misunderstandings by one’s stakeholders is not a hallmark of formidable Ministerial competence; and being great at delivering the National party line is not the right qualification for the Minister of Conservation, because in terms of the legislation, it is not a Conservation Minister’s job to just toe the party line.

Comments (9)

by Simon on May 20, 2010

Hi Claire,
Thanks for the hat tip! Great post! Yes, the title is unfair; but only on the blue duck (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos!

I just hope that in respect of the Mohikinui hydo access, that Forest and Bird or the Greens or the kayakers, still have enough in the litigation kitty to fund a judicial review of a concession or land swap decision, after a long re-hearing of resource consent evidence at the Environment Court.

by william blake on May 20, 2010
william blake

"...her colleagues are all buffoons, and their policies toilet-paper"


by Grant Henderson on May 25, 2010
Grant Henderson

The big worry for me is that National's "Blue/Green" environmental policy was nowhere to be seen in the 2010 Budget.

Of course, politicians always want to fix the economy before attending to less important matters such as the health of the planet. Trouble is, successive Finance Ministers have been preaching that line for decades, and the light at the end of the tunnel is still a long way off. We need to reprioritise a bit and keep what environment we've got. After all, it's what the tourists come to see.

Blue/Green may eventually emerge, but not before the all the wild rivers are dammed, I suspect.





by Claire Browning on May 26, 2010
Claire Browning


According to the EDS conference website, Nick Smith is giving an address to them next week, about next steps in the BlueGreen agenda.

by Claire Browning on May 28, 2010
Claire Browning

The notes allege that after discussing Mokihinui, Canterbury water, and Schedule 4 mining, Mrs Wilkinsons word of the evening was balance. As the note taker would have it, she said a Conservation Ministers role was to bring balance to conservation as well as protection”; and that we need to “make a better use of what we have, without ruining what we have.

If any such assertion was made by any Conservation Minister, it would be quite wrong …

A postscript. It might be more surprising if Mrs Wilkinson had not addressed the meeting in those terms, having not long previously signed off on the Department of Conservation’s Statement of Intent 2010-2013 which has just been released.

Chapter 2 (strategic direction) opens with a summary of DOC’s operating environment, chiefly, the government’s priorities.

Here is a sample, at 2.1.1 (my emphasis): “Within the conservation portfolio, the Minister of Conservation has determined that particular attention should be focused on contributing to the six drivers of growth by increasing tourism, recreation opportunities and revenue generation in ways that balance both conservation and economic goals, so that DOC can deliver meaningful and tangible benefits to New Zealanders.”

Similar language appears again, twice more, on page 11 (my emphasis): “Working with the Ministry of Economic Development to identify both mineral prospects and conservation values on public conservation lands, as input into a public consultation process to ensure that conservation values and mineral values on public conservation lands are balanced to give maximum possible benefit to New Zealanders” and “The NHMS tools and information will also assist with decisions on where and how best to balance economic development and conservation values by supporting ongoing development of biodiversity offsets”.

The list of the Minister’s priorities for DOC during 2010-2011 seem to focus quite heavily on conservation as a vehicle for commercial revenue generation – not necessarily in inconsistent ways, but with revenue evidently an important factor. Later in the chapter it says:

“DOC continues to progress initiatives to contribute to New Zealand’s economic prosperity, particularly in response to the government’s priorities, as outlined above in 2.1.1.”

The ‘look and feel’ of the whole chapter is also quite different from previous years (compare 2009, when Tim Groser was the Minister, and 2008, under the Labour-led government).

It is normal for these corporate documents to change across governments, to reflect the new administration’s policies and priorities. It is also normal for them to evolve on the initiative of departments themselves.

However, the previous 2009-2012 statement, whilst taking on a blue ‘flavour’, had quite a conventional description. In summary, it was that conservation is an economic investment for New Zealand, and ought to be recognised and prioritised as such, but the order of priority was conservation first, with economic benefit as a happy side-effect.

Compare the current chapter 2 with Tim Groser’s 2009 chapter 2 and foreword. See also the ‘intermediate outcomes’:

  • Business opportunities consistent with conservation are enabled” (2009 at 2.2.4, reproduced from 2008)
  • More business opportunities delivering increased economic prosperity and conservation gain” (2010 at 2.2.3).

It’s unclear how much the difference here is one of mere style, or real substance. The change in tone and emphasis is subtle, but in practice, the effects could be quite profound.

In short, the position as expressed in 2010-2013 is more vague, and leaves more wriggle-room, on the point of whether trading off one goal against the other is ever acceptable, or whether a conservation asset might properly be sacrificed if offset for conservation benefit somewhere else.

There might be something in this; there might not, but it’s worth keeping an eye on, in my view. Watch this space …

by Claire Browning on June 21, 2010
Claire Browning

Green MP Kevin Hague reports on his select committee examination of the Minister:

There were obviously many areas where I could have questioned the Minister ... but I was conscious that I was only likely to get a couple of questions so I focused on the Department’s Statement of Intent, as it is radically different this year ... My questions to her asked her to reconcile her priorities with the responsibilities she has under the Conservation Act. After a couple of goes, where she didn’t seem to understand the question, she handed it to Al Morrison, who sounded confident, but spoke nonsense ...

That is a partial quote. The link takes you to the full version.

by Claire Browning on June 21, 2010
Claire Browning

The Department of Conservation's response, dated June 11, to my OIA request says:

I refer to your official information request of 27 May 2010 in which you asked for:

  • copies of any information or advice from Department of Conservation officials to Ministers Hon Kate Wilkinson or Hon Tim Groser about the policy of 'balance' in the conservation portfolio (eg bringing balance to conservation as well as protection, or balancing the environment and the economy);
  • any ministerial decisions, directions or comments on the same subject;
  • any information held by the Department about whether it is the role or intention of the Minister of Conservation to promote any such policy; and
  • any advice given by the Department to the same two ministers about how such an approach would fit with statutory conservation responsibilities.

I regret that I am not able to provide you with the information you seek as no such information, advice or instruction has been requested or provided on any of the topics you describe.

by Kathleen Reid on September 02, 2011
Kathleen Reid

Kate Wilkinson declined the application for a marine reserve in Akaroa Harbour on 20th August 2010.  She gave the reason for declining the reserve as "adversely affecting recreational fishing".  The proposed Akaroa marine reserve site attracts only 6% of fishing effort within Akaroa Harbour and is quite tiny at only 530ha.  The Minister does not, and will not, reveal the information she relied on for making her decision. 

This is the first time that a marine reserve has been declined outright in NZ and this sets a very worrying precedent for marine reserve investigations in other areas.  Various options were suggested to the Minister so that compromises could be reached but she ignored these and refuses to say why.

Such was the outcry from marine conservationists throughout NZ to this decision that the impetus was created for a legal challenge.  The Minister is now required to defend her decision in the High Court by way of a Judicial Review.  The hearing is scheduled to take place in Christchurch early in 2012.

Apart from so little recreational fishing, there is virtually no commercial fishing in the proposed reserve site.  Maybe a little commercial paua is taken but this only accounts for a very small fraction of the area available to these commercial harvesters.

It is common knowledge that Ngai Tahu opposed the reserve (as they often do) but this is not the reason the Minister gave when declining the reserve.

Marine conservation is very much the poor cousin of terrestrial conservation. NZ created the first marine reserve in the world at Leigh in the 1970s but has lagged behind the rest of the world ever since. 

by on October 05, 2011

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