It’s about New Zealand

Forest & Bird Conservation Advocate Claire Browning is writing a new chapter in our New Zealand story. This one has a happy ending.

Dame Anne Salmond, Sanderson speaker at Forest &  Bird’s Face Up to the Future conference, and 2013 New Zealander of the Year, thinks “New Zealanders are ready for their leaders to come up with a big idea” (New Zealand Herald, February 8, 2013).

Meanwhile, the government seems single-minded in its pursuit of growth and jobs, drilling for oil and gas, and encouraging minerals prospecting and mining of coal. 

These represent two very different versions of our story, at a time when New Zealand stands at another historical cross-road. 

The Rainbow Warrior’s symbolic return to New Zealand last summer, as she sailed from Matauri Bay to the subAntarctic Auckland Islands and practised non-violent resistance protest strategies in the Pegasus Basin, marks another fight for our country’s soul.

Jobs are being used to justify all sorts of things. Most recently, new Conservation Minister Nick Smith made clear jobs would be a consideration for him in decision-making on Fiordland’s tunnel and monorail proposals. 

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce is leading his colleagues’ stampede away from our $13.6 billion, market-leading, inconveniently untrue brand, 100% Pure New Zealand – saying that as part of his Business Growth Agenda, government will repackage it as a “New Zealand story”.

Forest & Bird and colleagues, Greenpeace among them, are taking up Mr Joyce’s challenge to write a New Zealand story. Because we think it’s our story: a story that’s already owned by environmentalists – and New Zealanders. 

It’s time to stand up proud and claim it. 

This is about policy, not politics. Ministers are making the wrong policy choices, driven by poor priorities, which can only deliver bad outcomes for the things Forest & Bird stands up to defend on behalf of New Zealanders.

They’re also wrong in their dismissal of government critics as anti-jobs-and-growth-and-change, “deeply unhelpful” and “not really New Zealand”. 

We’re proud to be among those critics, demanding change and defending New Zealand values. We want change for good, change that works, change that makes Kiwis pioneers again. 

We’re proud to stand for something different to the government’s current lack of ambition and commitment to last century’s failed way of doing things. 

In an opinion piece for The Press (December 21, 2012), Sir Geoffrey Palmer described the government’s treatment of “carping and moaning” Cantabrians as leaving “a toxic taste in the constitutional mouth” (“carping and moaning” were Gerry Brownlee’s words). 

For another three years the removal of the democratic right to vote for Environment Canterbury’s councillors will be the price of irrigation development. Documents released under the Official Information Act and Ministers’ own public statements show that this was the reason the government suspended democracy and restricted water appeal rights in Canterbury. 

Of all the tools Forest & Bird uses in its work, the RMA is among the most important.

The Resource Management Reform Bill at select committee now would see an axe taken to planning protections for trees. The trees are an example of how it’s not about the “RMA”. It’s the rivers we swim in, the air we breathe, the landscapes and biodiversity we treasure - the innumerable health and amenity benefits from shade, beauty, shelter for wildlife, and ecosystem services that trees bring to our communities.

These are only the first of what will be much more devastating RMA changes in 2013, with Environment Minister Amy Adams keen to “go back to first principles”. 

Confident that the Act is working well for environmental protection, she’s now focused on ripping out its heart - undermining its core philosophy, rewriting key sections, removing important principles - and challenging the ground-breaking consensus that has stood for a quarter century, since Simon Upton and Sir Geoffrey Palmer agreed in 1991 upon the Act’s basic frame. 

In the guise of planning efficiency, what is proposed would see unprecedented Ministerial powers to override years of plan development with the local community and just impose a change to the plan with no checks or balances, such as Environment Court oversight, or public submissions. 

The National Park management plan for Fiordland, developed by the New Zealand Conservation Authority through an extensive public consultation process, has likewise been ignored by the Department of Conservation in considering that the tunnel might proceed. 

These are ideas that hark back to the Think Big era, when lobbying by a foreign investor might see direct Ministerial amendment of local planning laws. 

Government might declare by regulation that certain types of proposals – mining and mineral exploitation, for example – must not be notified, so communities would have no say in their resource consent. 

It would let Ministers choose when the environment counted less than their next job creation or infrastructure project.

Much of the constitutional sleight of hand we are seeing is about a government giving itself the ability to trample on things that belong to all of us, in pursuit of elusive growth and jobs at any cost.

These aren’t New Zealand values: the democratic values defended by Kate Sheppard or Sir Peter Blake, who died an environmental advocate and campaigner, writing of his anger at how profit was being put first. 

“Nothing escapes,” he wrote. “Everything is taken. Everything. The next lagoon follows – then the next – then the next.” (New Zealand Herald, December 3, 2011).

In 2010 – when 50,000 of us filled Auckland’s Queen Street, holding banners that read “Ours, not mine” – we were saying the same.

Although I’ve written about it before, what follows bears repeating. In 2012, surveyed by DOC on conservation attitudes, 69 per cent of New Zealanders agreed conservation is at the heart of what it means to be a New Zealander. 73 per cent thought conservation should be considered in all key decisions about New Zealand’s future.

77 per cent agreed that spending money on conservation is a good investment in the prosperity and well-being of New Zealanders.

Fiddling while iconic species are dying, the government is not keeping faith with these values. 

In 2009 the government pledged $4.7 million for a five-year programme to help fight kauri dieback. In 2013, there will not be another funding bid, leaving kauri’s future uncertain.

Our place, where we live, isn’t a tradable commodity sold cheap every time we need a few more jobs.

If Mäui’s dolphins go, New Zealand would join China as the only countries to have allowed the extinction of a critically endangered cetacean species because fishers were not required in time to take their nets out of waters inhabited by the remaining 55 dolphins. 

At the time of writing, Threat Management Plan decisions were awaited that had been repeatedly postponed.

Ninety per cent of our lowland rivers are unfit for swimming, toxic to humans and animals. Yet a roughly 6 per cent profit reduction – or less intensive (but potentially more profitable) farming methods to protect and restore water quality – is proving unacceptable to farmers. 

DOC, enduring ongoing restructuring and job losses, manages one-third of terrestrial New Zealand and marine protected areas on around the same budget as the Hamilton City Council. 

Meanwhile, tourism will be boosted in the budget by $158 million. “Too big to fail” Solid Energy, which has destroyed the Stockton Plateau, removing mountain tops and assigning the giant Powelliphanta Augustus land snail to fridges, is $389 million in debt and looks in line for a government bailout. 

At the same time, under the Emissions Trading Scheme (described by Parliamentary Environment Commissioner Jan Wright as a “farce”), had we not simply withdrawn from Kyoto, New Zealanders would be subsidising greenhouse gas polluters to the tune of billions of dollars. 

Is this the kind of “balance” you want? 

The Rainbow Warrior sailing back into port echoes a time when we made energy choices: not to pursue, and to actively oppose, a nuclear future. It echoes a time when we stood up for a thing we believed in, a time that made us nuclear-free and proud.

Now, as we did then on nuclear disarmament, New Zealand should be meeting commitments on climate change; taking a moral position as leaders and persuaders on clean energy; being brave, and showing our ingenuity, because it pays dividends in the end.

We should be demanding evidence-based policy, which we haven’t seen from this government in its made-up numbers on mining in national parks; its pattern of ignoring science on climate, freshwater, Mäui’s dolphins and sea lions; the Environment Minister’s reliance on scanty RMA anecdote and spin.

It’s important that promises made internationally on climate, conservation, and the “100% Pure New Zealand” brand are kept. We can argue about whether it’s “100% pure environment”, “pure New Zealand”, or “pure you”, but either way, Kiwis keep their word. 

It’s that kind of international integrity and leadership that lets us punch above our weight. Our place, where we live, isn’t a tradable commodity sold cheap every time we need a few more jobs, as the values elicited by DOC’s survey show. 

“[It’s] time to define who we are” suggested the Herald on Sunday editorial late last year. We agree. We need to look after our nature in 2013 – remember what makes us proud. 

This is a campaign for the environment. But it’s more than being just about “the environment”. It’s about us – about New Zealand.

2013 will see Forest & Bird in campaign mode, joining other NGOs and activists, including a new “100% possible” campaign by 350 Aotearoa/Generation Zero, and the Wise Response appeal from 100 prominent New Zealanders from across disciplines – academia, business, science, literature – led by Forest & Bird Conservation Ambassador Sir Alan Mark. 

Coinciding with the Rainbow Warrior’s tour, Greenpeace put out a green economy report, which is an example of Dame Anne Salmond’s “big idea”: a vision for energyindependence, four times as many jobs and New Zealand as the first in the world to have a renewable source of transport fuel. 

Dame Anne has long been a teller of New Zealand stories.Already, the Wise Response alliance has been styled “the great and the good” but really it’s people like us.

These are the first stirrings of a movement that can take us forward.