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Dr Muriel Newman

Radical forces shape our future

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There is no doubt that New Zealand is being subjected, more than ever before, to radical forces from within. Previously we – the silent majority – quite rightly relied upon our elected politicians to do the talking and keep the radicals at bay, so that the wishes of the majority of citizens were respected. Unfortunately, however, we now live in a new political environment where the radical elements in our society – those that used to be confined to the fringes of New Zealand politics – are now firmly ensconced on the crossbenches holding the balance of power.

Following are three examples of radical policies that demonstrate the problem we face.

The first is the foreshore and seabed, where, with the help of former Ngai Tahu lawyer and National Party MP, Chris Finalyson, the iwi elite have been given the opportunity to gain private ownership of an immensely valuable public commons that has always been owned by the Crown on behalf of all New Zealanders. It turns out that the National Party offered to repeal Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed in return for the Maori Party’s support during this parliamentary term. It was a radical coalition bribe that will come at a huge cost to the rights and freedoms of all New Zealanders.

The second example is the Waitangi Tribunal’s Wai 262 report, which recommends that Maori should be given ownership rights to the genetic code of indigenous flora and fauna that they have identified as ‘taonga’ or treasured species. Contrary to what might be expected, such taonga species are not rare, but varieties that are common and popular, such as Pohutukawa and Kowhai, as well as tea tree or Manuka – which is already a key ingredient in the multi-million dollar cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. Ownership of the genetic code would mean that all commercial users of these species would need to obtain the consent of Maori – and no doubt pay a fee. What this signals, of course, is that in this post-Treaty settlement environment, Maori activists are now searching for new money-making avenues. Control of the growing commercial returns being generated from New Zealand natives is clearly one of their objectives.

I am aware of one example where Maori visited a local native plant nursery and demanded Koha (others call it extortion). Astonishingly, calls to the Police for help were ignored. If these extortionate practices are not stopped all legitimate businesses that involve indigenous species could be targeted by Maori activists.

The Crown’s response to the Wai 262 claim is that Maori have no generic rights to control indigenous species in any way at all. Under current laws, the owners of the land on which indigenous plants grow own their genetic resources and the right to use them for commercial gains. And as far as indigenous wildlife is concerned, under the Wildlife Act 1953, all species are owned by the Crown, which has the sole right to use their genetic resources.

With the Crown firmly opposed to the radical Wai 262 claim, any concessions by National will be based on purely political grounds. However, in the same way that ownership of the foreshore and seabed was the bribe National offered to the Maori Party for their support during this parliamentary term, it may be that concessions around Wai 262 will be the new bribe that National offers the Maori Party for their continued support during the next parliamentary term.

There are also signs that National is planning to reach out to the Green Party with equally radical coalition offerings. This time the sweetener looks likely to be the proposed National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity, which is an extreme proposal that dictates what private landowners can and cannot do on their own property.

Launched in January, the normal procedure for the development of a National Policy Statement – which is a mechanism under the Resource Management Act for local government policy making – is that a Board of Inquiry would be set up to investigate the proposal and make recommendations to the government. In this case, National has not only chosen to by-pass the requirement for a Board of Inquiry, but it has also delayed the final release of the policy statement until after the election. This has led to speculation that National intends to determine its final shape through negotiation with the ideologically-driven Green Party as a part of a post-election coalition deal.

In its preamble, the policy statement explains, “in just 700 to 800 years, humans have wrought huge change through our use of land and other natural resources, and through our introduction of exotic species that have become pests outside their natural environments. As a consequence, many indigenous species have been lost and many that remain are now highly vulnerable and may also be lost unless we intervene to protect them from the many threats they face.”

The statement then goes on to outline a series of punitive requirements that will essentially trample on the freedom and private property rights of landowners by dictating how they must manage their land – whether they can cut down scrub, graze their cattle, erect fences, and so on.

In comparison, when it comes to Maori, the policy statement requires that local tribes are ‘consulted’ so their interests can be incorporated into local council indigenous biodiversity management plans – no compulsion nor dictatorial threats, even though the exploitation of native species through customary rights privileges is not uncommon.

The point is that experience has long shown that when councils work with landowners to bring about good conservation outcomes, the benefits far outweigh the results obtained through the use of draconian regulations. According to the Hurunui District Council – which is strongly opposed to the Proposed National Policy Statement – the strict regulatory approach that is being proposed, may result in a potential loss of biodiversity due to a loss of landowner goodwill, whereas a more collaborative and co-operative non-regulatory approach would strengthen voluntary biodiversity protection and achieve far better sustainable results.1

The council also criticises the fact that the National Policy Statement does not cover Department of Conservation land as they see that as a major contributor to the loss of indigenous biodiversity.

While in most countries governments aspire to own around 10 percent of total land for conservation management purposes, in New Zealand over a third of our land area is under the control of the government – more, if local authority parks and reserves are included. Essentially that means that the government could largely achieve its indigenous biodiversity objectives if it got its own house in order, by properly protecting the vast numbers of indigenous plants and animals that live on Department of Conservation (DOC) land.

In 2005, the Centre for Resource Management Studies produced a report entitled The Role of the Department of Conservation and the Need for Change which claimed, “DOC management failures are legendary, ranging from the Cave Creek platform collapse, to the death of rare and endangered kakapo because the Department was so focussed on PR that they allowed dirty gumboots from pig farms to transfer infectious bacterium to kakapo enclosures in Fiordland. Other examples include releasing cage reared blue ducks into the wild in mid winter. This is a time when food stocks are at their lowest. This low level of available food had been further reduced where 1080 poison run-off had wiped out the invertebrate biota in the streams where their food is derived. Not surprisingly all perished, weighed down as they were with radio transmitters”.2

The Jewelled Gecko is a fully protected endangered native lizard with an estimated population of some 5,000. The gecko is unique to New Zealand and is found in only three areas of Otago and Canterbury. Its decline is due in part to the fact that it is highly prized on the black market where a single specimen can fetch up to $10,000. It also appears that no sooner are some recovered geckos returned to the wild by DOC, than they are stolen again.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Otago Regional Councillor and former MP Gerrard Eckhoff, who believes that since current conservation practices for such endangered species are simply not working, then a major change in direction is needed. Under his plan authorised breeders – who would ensure the Jewelled Gecko is saved from extinction – would provide a commission to the Department of Conservation that could be used to fund other conservation projects.

In his article The Jewelled Gecko, he explains that breeding programmes “work for sheep, cattle, caged birds, rare fowl, fish, dogs, cats, pigs, crocodiles, deer….. Well – I think you get the picture. The only real risk to the concept is the scheme being too successful. Somebody is likely to suggest – if saving the Jewelled Gecko is really so easy why not apply the same principles to many other wildlife species and increase the nation’s coffers?”

Each of the three examples discussed – the repeal of Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed, the Wai 262 claim for the ownership of the genetic code of indigenous species, and the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity – are radical policies that the majority of New Zealanders would not support if they were fully informed. That such extreme legislative changes could be used to entice parties into a government coalition is a major cause of concern. The National Party should be protecting the public from extremism, not imposing it.

How can the public have real confidence in the future of New Zealand when such extreme policies – which under normal circumstances should never see the light of day – are imposed on an unsuspecting public by a mainstream political party?