Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been making a big deal about cuts to Conservation funding and the impact they are having on the work the Department of Conservation is charged with doing. Yet Maggie Barry, the Minister of Conservation, says I’ve got it all wrong. So I thought a review might be in order.
I started out with some facts:
- Since National came to power, 142 species have been classified as closer to extinction
- 70% of these species have no action plan for their recovery
- 38 structures (bridges, viewing platforms etc) on public conservation land were overdue for serious or critical repairs
- 168 structures failed their load capacity assessments
- 709 structures had still to be assessed
- 46% of tracks do not meet the required service standard
- 50 individual tracks or sections of track have closed and not reopened since 2008, with an unknown number “removed”
- 25% of huts do not meet the required service standard.
The Minister has accused me of all sorts of things, has disputed the data, has said these numbers are unimportant, and so on. Just to be clear: all of these numbers come from the Minister’s answers to a series of questions I asked. Sure they were buried in more than 1200 pages of “information” but, regardless, they are HER numbers.
Against this rapidly deteriorating picture, I believe a responsible government would be spending more on Conservation to try to restore what is being lost and arrest any further deterioration. I published data that showed that, instead, this Government has consistently reduced Conservation spending. The Parliamentary Library, an unimpeachable expert source, prepared a table that showed that, on average, National has spent $55 million per annum LESS, in inflation-adjusted terms, than Labour did in their last Budget in 2008-09. A cumulative hole in Conservation funding of $336 million (again, in real terms).
Again much bluster from the Minister, claiming I’m wrong. But total silence as to how or why the Parliamentary Library’s analysis is wrong. And declining spending is certainly consistent with declining performance.
Reporters asked me what we would do. I said that as a first step we would inflation adjust last year’s Conservation funding and then add a further $55 million, reversing just the last year’s cut. And then set out a programme of funding to replace all of the $336 million over several years.
So what did National do for Conservation in this years’ Budget? Well there was a lot of talking up of Battle for the Birds, Wilding Pines removal, and generic “what a great Budget this is for Conservation”. But let’s look at the numbers: the overall “appropriation” (essentially the amount of its money that Government is allocating for a purpose) was $430 million for 2016/17, compared with $472 million in 2015/16. Seems like a 9 percent cut to me. DOC’s operational appropriation reduced from $379 million to $345 million (another 9 percent cut), and the appropriations for individual categories of work also declined. The appropriation for ‘Management of Natural Heritage’ (the bit where DOC conserves our native species, habitats and ecosystems) dropped from $188 million to $161 million (14 percent). (And by the way, just think what a pathetically small sum that is for such a crucial purpose).
I’ve taken the unusual step of including a photo from the relevant page of the Treasury Budget document. That’s because I had no sooner pointed out these cuts than Maggie Barry attacked me again, saying that I had it all wrong. Radio NZ got an accounting professor from Victoria University to review the documents, who concluded that I was correct and the Budget had been cut. The Minister’s office then went into spin overdrive, trying to convince the Conservation sector that all was well. As I understand it, the case for the Minister’s claim that there has been no cut is that DOC had substantially underspent against the money that had been appropriated for it in previous years, and that Treasury had allowed some of that money to be kept and used in the 2016/17 year.
Well one of the features of Conservation funding has been the way the department has typically spent much less on Conservation than has been appropriated, so that bit could well be right (but a disaster for the work that wasn’t done). But Treasury doesn’t allow money to be carried over without also carrying over the specific work it was allocated for. In other words the carried-over money is not available for 2016/17 core Conservation work, but must be used for the 2014/15 and 2015/16 work that didn’t happen. Maybe there’s a little wiggle room, but it seems undeniable that in the face of deteriorating performance, the Government is choosing to appropriate less resource, not more.
The pattern has mostly been for the Government to substantially underspend on Conservation and then put small amounts back tagged to heavily publicised special projects. In my opinion the Department of Conservation, its staff, and all of the wonderful volunteers working away on conservation projects are New Zealand heroes. But they are being asked to carry out their work with one hand tied behind their back, by a Government more interested in image and gesture than, well, Conservation.