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Armstrong: Brownlee’s big idea turning to custard

Written By: - Date published: 8:54 am, May 1st, 2010 - 18 comments
Categories: Conservation, Environment, Mining - Tags:

Herald chief political commentator John Armstrong writes why Brownlee’s mining plans are turning a shade of yellow. Some interesting observations – worth a read.

Along with Brownlee’s exceptionally poor performance as Leader of the House, one wonders how much his sub-par handling of the mining issue has damaged his standing in Cabinet.

Minister perhaps bit off more than he could chew with mining policy

Gerry Brownlee’s search for El Dorado in this country’s supposedly mineral-ridden national parks has so far been more akin to King Midas in reverse. The only gold to be seen is the colour of the custard to which the whole exercise has rapidly been turning.

Brownlee’s Cabinet colleagues will surely be asking each other how someone of his seniority and political acumen has lost control of what was his political baby from the start.

Little wonder then that the centre-left – wedded to the state playing a major role in social and economic policy – sees another, less visible agenda operating here.

Brownlee’s plan to lift the ban on mining in national parks and on other parcels of land of high conservation value has become – much to Labour’s and the Greens’ delight – the story which refuses to die. And there is plenty more to come with things still only at the discussion document stage.

In a week dominated by a major report on the liquor laws and a gob-smacking hike in tobacco tax, the continuing melee over mining still barged its way onto the daily political agenda. A confusing press statement and map issued by his officials in the Ministry of Economic Development forced Brownlee to offer further reassurance that Mt Aspiring National Park will remain untouched.

All in all, the privatisation of policy-making is another dagger plunged into a public service already reeling under injurious cost-cutting pressures.

Next up was Jan Wright, Parliament’s official environmental watchdog, who rubbished Brownlee’s discussion document as incoherent.

That report, which has so far drawn more than 14,000 submissions from the public, details the portions of protected land which might be removed from the “Schedule Four” list of areas in the Crown Minerals Act currently off limits to mining operations.

Wright slammed the document as inadequate in assessing the real ecological impact of mining in specific localities, deficient in the way it measures the value of minerals claimed to be underground and unacceptable in recommending additions to Schedule Four as some kind of quid pro quo for taking other land out of that protection.

Her parting shot was to warn she would be back with a far more extensive report on the mining of the Conservation estate around the time the Cabinet would be making final decisions on which areas would be removed from Schedule Four.

If all that was not enough, the Opposition seized on Cabinet papers which revealed Brownlee and Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson had originally proposed that significant chunks of the Coromandel and the Mt Aspiring, Kahurangi, and Rakiura national parks be lopped off Schedule Four – close to 470,000ha in total.

That option would have seen almost all Department of Conservation-administered land in the Coromandel – about 30 per cent of the peninsular – wiped from the schedule.

Those sort of figures were clearly way beyond some ministers’ comfort levels. The discussion document was delayed so it could be substantially diluted to just 7000ha. Brownlee then failed to do the necessary sales job once the discussion document had been released.

It was always going to be an almighty task however, convincing people that there is a direct link between inviting the mining industry to burrow into pristine tracts of the Conservation estate and New Zealanders becoming materially better off.

New Zealand is littered with evidence of the boom-bust nature of some mining operations. Mining is a vital industry. But suddenly highlighting it as paving the way to economic nirvana jars with the message force-fed to New Zealanders for more than two decades – that economic salvation lies in developing enterprises based on innovation and adding value, not commodities at the mercy of international price fluctuations.

The lesson other ministers will draw from this shemozzle is not necessarily just the obvious one of political salesmanship, however.

Brownlee’s difficulties will confirm in their minds that when the Government wants policy advice on major and tricky reforms, it should seek that advice from outside the core public service, rather than rely on departmental officials as he did.

Labour began this process with Helen Clark going over the heads of the Justice Department by using Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s quasi-autonomous Law Commission as a policy think-tank on law and order measures.

But National has taken things a whole lot further. Its de facto “privatisation” of policy advice is manifest in the plethora of task forces, working parties and ministerial reference groups comprising experts drawn from outside the public service.

That is where the action is. The bureaucrats are finding themselves sidelined across the whole spectrum of policy development.

A ministerial group chaired by former Treasury boss Murray Horn has driven the restructuring of the Ministry of Health, such that he now chairs the new national health board that he recommended be established to streamline the delivery of health services.

A working group of tax experts laid the foundations for this month’s Budget, while a welfare working group set up by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has been tasked with coming up with policies to tackle long-term welfare dependence.

This approach has numerous political advantages which stretch beyond just tailoring the membership to get the recommendations a minister wants.

Inevitably, the ideological make-up of such task forces means the ensuing recommendations may be quite radical. If so, the minister can simply reject them out of hand. Alternatively, he or she can leave them hanging both to gauge public reaction and soften the public up to them being implemented. Crucially, the minister does not have to share ownership of any proposals until it is safe to do so. He or she can keep a healthy distance from any barmy stuff. That is not the case with policies which emanate in the public service. The first the public gets to hear of them is when a minister announces them following what is usually months of behind-the-scenes work by officials.

If the public does not like the policies, then the minister alone takes the rap. That has been Brownlee’s fate. His wish to expand mining on the Conservation estate where a significant amount of New Zealand’s mineral potential is thought to lie was matched if not exceeded by his enthusiastic officials.

In a move which was downright cruel, the Ministry of Economic Development and the Department of Conservation were brought together to form a joint working group of officials to conduct the stocktake of Schedule Four.

By definition of the group’s task, DoC, as the agency advocating for conservation, could at best fight only a rearguard action. It failed to do even that. The result was recommendations which went way beyond what the Prime Minister would have found politically palatable.

The subsequent delays in the discussion document’s release meant media speculation of Cabinet division.

To cap things off, the bureaucratic infighting created a climate for the leaking of the Government’s intentions in order to embarrass Brownlee.

In contrast, a leak from a task force seemingly operating independently is not going to give a minister much angst.

Leaks do nothing for National’s trust of public servants. Leaks will only make it more likely ministers will opt for outside advice, leaving officials as a backstop gauging any potential pitfalls.

It’s been clear since this issue was on the table it was always going to be politically challenging. One wonders why Mr Brownlee should be so surprised when he’s proposing to run bulldozers over our natural heritage.

By the sounds of Armstrong’s article some of Brownlee’s Cabinet colleagues were not surprised.


18 comments on “Armstrong: Brownlee’s big idea turning to custard”

  1. Jim Nald 1

    Good Saturday morning, New Zealand.

    It’s May Day.

    Right under your noses, they are stealing your country.

    Wake up !

  2. coolas 2

    High fives to Jan Wright for her gutsy challenge to Brownlee, which seems to’ve given Armstrong the courage to do his job properly. Great stuff John.

    Let’s hope other powerful MSM journalists awake out of their trances and disseminate the ‘real story’ machinations of this incompetent Government.

  3. ianmac 3

    As a resident cynic I wonder if the fuss about mining, which will be sometime in the distant future, is a convenient distraction to say the current sacking of Ecan, and the water extraction from Canterbury and then in…..

  4. NickS 4

    Armstrong’s got a point about the government’s use of what are effectively think tanks to do the dirty work, instead of using the resources in policy R&D in the ministries and links to university researchers built up over time. For as we’ve seen with with the Brash taskforce + the welfare one set up by Bennett, this allows a minister to get the answers they want, instead of an actual critical review of the literature, current policy, and future policy aims to see what changes may be needed. Which as we’ve so far seen, leads to a waste of policy R&D money, but also provides “work” for members of the old boys network.

    It’s a bit laughable considering NACT’s rhetoric over private sector efficiency when they end up scrapping policy R&D that’s cost the tax payer a pretty sum, but as Armstrong notes and other commentators have here, it might just be this is for softening up the public to harsher policies, or gauging public reactions. Although wouldn’t it just be cheaper to hire a polling company to do the ground work? Oh, that’s right, their pet poller DPF doesn’t do mates rates, nor produce useful polling data…

  5. Brownlee’s difficulties will confirm in their minds that when the Government wants policy advice on major and tricky reforms, it should seek that advice from outside the core public service, rather than rely on departmental officials as he did.

    Which is very odd, given that the public service has done its job and given Brownlee exactly the advice he asked for. He asked for a paper proposing opening vast swathes of national parks to mining, he got it. When Cabinet rejected it as too radical, he got a more conservative plan. And when they rejected that, he got the current one. I’m sure he’s also had people telling him its a terrible idea (well, maybe not the loonies in Crown Minerals, who are pretty much a wholly-owned subsidiary of Straterra, but certainly from DoC). If he chose to ignore them and bull on, then its hardly the fault of the public service.

    • zonk 5.1

      yes I did think this was odd.

      though as Mr Campbell at Scoop has reported most of the valuations were from a single industry source.

      It doesn’t seem logical that it was the fault of the public service for what is a terrible idea. Very odd reasoning.

      And as you continue to point out so well on your blog there has been plenty of advice to National ministers about the obvious drawbacks in their ramshackle schemes ie national standards, car crushing, Bill of Rights, etc etc….

  6. Draco T Bastard 6

    By the look of that article Armstrong is blaming the public service for the mining proposal failing. He seems to be recommending that the ministries be sidelined and private consultants brought in so that the ministers get the answers that they want.

  7. Tigger 7

    Expect more ‘leaks’ and thus reasons to gut the untrustworthy civil servants.

  8. Jim Nald 8

    Is the Government determined to undermine and decimate the pillars of democratic society, of which the neutral public service has been one and which is gradually being axed, manipulated or silenced?

  9. McRad 9

    Brownlee may have lost control of “his political baby” but Mr Key’s golden touch might uncover the tourism potential of these new mines yet. Here’s the, um, dirt: http://weeklycoitus.co.nz/?p=855

    • lprent 9.1

      That is amusing. You can imagine some blogging woofters like adamsmith or certain others running that spinners line. In fact I think I’ve seen it run here amongst the comments.

      Added your site to the blogroll so I can find it again.

    • frog 9.2

      Wasn’t it once “Daily Coitus”? It’s always been good, but the lack of frequency is disappointing.

      • Jim Nald 9.2.1

        Thanks! On my list of sites to check out regularly.
        Perhaps they need a bit of Viagra to get it going more often?

  10. Jenny 10

    Brownlee’s assurances of Sustainable and Keyhole mining are just not credible.

    Not only do things go wrong in the mining and extraction industries, but there is also a culture of cover up and minimising of environmental degradation.

    Northern Territory government has accused miners of cover-ups.

    “It’s a culture of cover-up and it’s not acceptable,” NT Environment Minister Karl Hampton.

    Covered up

    [lprent: Looks like you cut and pasted the link from something odd. It was a bit malformed. Located the link and replaced it. ]

  11. Flatfish 11

    I thought the initial quotes/ideas/wet-dreams of the below ground wealth came from an external thunk-tank not from the public service (PS) or the CRIs. Effectively a lobbyist sticking a digit up.

    Once Brownlee/NACT was hooked, the PS appear to have been dragged in when asked what land to open up.

  12. randal 12

    too many sausage rolls have fuddled his brain.
    he comes on like the last geological survey was only yesterday but all the work was done years ago and anybody who knows about these things knows that most ore bodies in new zealand are pretty miniscule and uneconomic.
    just like the national part really.

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