The post-election outlook on our conservation lands
Although a National government has been returned, in a way Kiwis did “vote for nature” as our election campaign asked. The prospects for Nature in the next three years are not all quite as bleak as you might imagine.
It is a very interesting Parliament and there are some reasons to hope that Forest & Bird’s hand is, in fact, a little stronger than it was in the 49th Parliament.
The new National-led government has 64 confidence votes, with support from the ACT party, the United Future party, and the Maori party. It has 59 seats of its own. John Banks and Peter Dunne make 61.
Mr Dunne will be the Associate Conservation Minister, outside of Cabinet. Hon Kate Wilkinson continues with the Conservation portfolio, ranked at number 17 from 20 Ministers.
In a 121-seat Parliament, Mr Key needs 61 votes to govern, and pass Bills.
Analogies have been drawn between Mr Key and Mr Muldoon, including by the Prime Minister himself.
He will not want to risk a Marilyn Waring crossing the floor, or a Christine Fletcher exercising leverage on environmental issues in a narrowly divided House. (In 1997 Mrs Fletcher played an important role in ensuring Coromandel Peninsula’s inclusion in Schedule 4 to the Crown Minerals Act.)
He has, therefore, secured the support of the Maori party.
However, having given Mr Key their confidence, that party remains free to oppose anything else.
Forest & Bird will be looking to build a constructive relationship with the Maori party and Mr Dunne, and also, lobbying others. Nikki Kaye, for example, has shown quite staunch interest in conservation issues (particularly the proposal to mine Great Barrier, but not confined to that).
Of particular interest to us, the government has said that the Marine Reserves legislation will be revived and passed in this term. The EEZ Bill (Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Bill) needs to be strengthened, before it is passed: as introduced, it says that anything in the marine environment is tradable, for a high enough economic price. Phase 2 of the Resource Management Act reforms are likely to include section 6 and 7 reform, of the foundation principles in the Act, and may try to “streamline and simplify” Conservation Act decision-making by aligning it with decision-making under the RMA.
And the Game Animal Council Bill – not supported by Forest & Bird or anyone else with an interest in conservation – holds pride of place in Mr Dunne’s confidence and supply agreement.
Mr Dunne’s agreement also promises to adopt and implement policies to maintain free public access to rivers, lakes, forests and coastline. On fresh water, it says that United Future is “committed to improving water quality in our lakes rivers and streams, in particular mitigating the impact of agrarian runoff on these waterways, and ensuring quality standards and existing management of water supplies, and agrees that United Future will be consulted and involved in any initiatives concerning these issues”.
Mr Dunne has strong conservation policies on wild rivers and the Mokihinui hydro proposal in particular, although these were not given priority or even mentioned in the confidence and supply agreement. These, and his outdoor recreation links such as with Fish & Game, are reasons to be optimistic, and Mr Dunne, in the circumstances, could be one of the stronger conservation voices around this Cabinet table.
Less positively, United Future’s response to our pre-election vote for nature poll wanted to see DOC restructured, including splitting recreation from conservation and having them operate semi-autonomously. This would be contrary to conservation law. Mr Dunne’s opposition to 1080 is widely known although, ever the moderate voice of reason, he would not ban it immediately; his preference instead of funding 1080 is to spend money researching alternatives.
Extinctions are happening now.
United Future currently has no policy on Denniston. We will be looking to brief Mr Dunne on this, and asking our Denniston supporters to write to him at an early opportunity. Nevertheless, as one Twitterer commented, chances Mr Dunne will have much interest in the Denniston plateau are slim: “You can’t hunt snails.”
The ACT party has an item in its confidence and supply agreement about the RMA, which will be one to keep an eye on. The risk is that John Banks could be made the political whipping boy for a robust RMA agenda which, indications are, National would have wanted to pursue anyway.
11.06% of people did “vote for nature”, and for sustainability – or rivers kids and jobs anyway – in unprecedented numbers, yielding a result of 14 MPs for the Green party.
The Greens ran a strong campaign, in a year when Labour was on its knees. However, another factor may have been voters attempting to bring some Green balance to the blue government.
As it transpired, Mr Key can cobble together enough support, leaving the Greens in the same place as they were in the 49th Parliament, negotiating initiatives to pursue under a MOU.
And yet, taking a longer view, this election when National has never been stronger also shows the tenuous nature of their support under MMP. They cannot count, long term, on United Future and ACT. To cover their drill-dig-dairy agenda, insure themselves, and recognise the rising tide of the Green vote, they will be wanting to build a relationship with the Greens.
There are clearly areas where this can occur. For example, both parties have freshwater and pest control priorities.
Meanwhile, on the opposition benches, as Greens try to keep and grow their new double-figure vote base, and Labour attempts to rebuild, and casts around for a new agenda to unite its party and fire the imaginations of voters, there will be healthy competition for a sustainable nature-friendly manifesto – with the environment ranked by voters this year as their number-one election issue.
In 2014, whether the government is blue or red-led, we can expect better conservation outcomes.