Sometimes it can be tricky being a senior public servant. The Department of Conservation senior management just fronted up to the Local Government and Environment Select Committee for the Department’s ‘financial review’. This is the Department’s accountability mechanism to Parliament for how it spent its public money in the 2009-10 year, but in practice the scope for questioning is very wide.
As an opposition spokesperson, my job is to expose the Minister’s incompetence or bad decisions. It’s Al Morrison’s job to try to stop me doing that. My sympathy for his predicament is profound. Sometimes it holds me back – which can be a problem, when dots that I think are obvious to join aren’t to others.
Some gems fom today:
On high country tenure review – Government direction is to protect conservation values through covenants, rather than incorporation into the public conservation estate. He is unable to comment on whether or not this is a weaker way of protecting these values (some wry smiles from pretty well everyone in the room. Take it from me, covenanting is only as strong as the private landowner’s personal commitment. It’s better than nothing at all, but everyone knows it’s a lot weaker than adding to the conservation estate.)
On the effect of budget cuts on biodiversity protection – astonishingly, despite funding cuts to the Department, there has been no impact on the endangered species we are protecting, pest control being done and biodiversity protection in general. Uh huh. My eyebrows are quite a long way up my forehead. Some written questions coming on.
On being challenged about Canterbury conservancy giving workers a memo about the Minister’s priorities, which are all commercial – he says that the Minister’s commercial priorities are only being pursued because they are inherently about improving biodiversity protection, and the DOC employees who got the memo instructing them to focus on the Minister’s commercial priorities will have understood this. Apparently this is clear in the Annual Report (which I’m sure they’ve all read), unlike the Statement of Intent, where the Minister told us these “conservation” priorities were so obvious they didn’t need to be stated (I’m paraphrasing but only slightly). Funny that isn’t how the workers I spoke to saw it.
On conflict between commercial concessions and conservation values – he says that there is an inevitable tension (!) Effectively he says that things I think are important (and are, you know, the purposes of his department, under the Act) like protection of inherent conservation values and recreational opportunities, have to bea scrificed compromised for commercial goals. This is illustrated neatly by the Hahei drinks seller. At one level it’s a trivial example, but it illustrates the point. Cathedral Cove is valued (and was vested in the Conservation estate) because of its largely unmodified but relatively accessible nature. There is no doubt that these values are compromised by having a commercial operation run on the beach. Senior DOC staffers today made the extraordinary claim that the community supports the commercial operation, based on the evidence that people buy drinks and the guy picks up rubbish and helps people who get into trouble.
The facts are that we face a biodiversity crisis, and our Government’s response to that is to reduce funding to the Department with the job of combating that crisis, instead believing (or at least pretending to) that the private sector will step in to protect these places, plants and animals that we love. In economic terms the inherent value of places and biodiversity is essentially a public good. All but the most extreme neocon economic thinkers recognise that this is what the State is for.
No wonder Al Morrison is giving speeches where we agree wholeheartedly with his analysis of the problem, but his prescription for solutions leaves us scratching our heads.