James Shaw, Vernon Tava and Kevin Hague.

Neil Miller: I wrote the right conservation policy for the wrong party

Last year environmental campaigner Neil Miller wrote a comprehensive conservation policy setting out in detail a ‘billion-dollar boost’. Yet however many might agree that it is common sense, no mainstream political party has picked up the idea and run with it, he writes.

My mistake was writing the policy for the wrong party. I was policy director for the somewhat ironically named Sustainable New Zealand Party. A putative party unlikely to sustain itself long enough to contest the election.

The conservation policy was launched at Zealandia last November. It went surprisingly well. I put into the leader’s speech a little dig that conservation was a better investment than “the bloated Shane Jones fund”. But some of the Provincial Growth Fund is going to conservation. You can never write off NZ First. Maybe I am just not all that good at picking winners.

The stated policy aim was to get to just 1% of the government’s budget to be spent on conservation by 2025. Plenty enough to save our threatened species, make the conservation-estate thrive (about a third of the country), with enough left over to help the farmers and the townies do better by nature. Is that too much to ask? It might even pay for itself in brand awareness and enhanced visitor experiences. Walking through eerily silent forests bereft of bird life is not that much fun.

It was not all that hard to cost the policy. I looked up Budget 2020 and the $181.6m million conservation budget increases won by the Greens over four years. Then I picked programmes that fund communities and farmers to do more. It was like playing lotto except every number was a winner. My principle was to get money out of the office and into the field. And not spend half of it on capital infrastructure for tourism as the Greens had done.

The idea of a parliamentary budget office was being kicked around while I was doing my research. But why do we need a special office to do the kind of simple task that I could complete over a few weekends? Are our parties and their parliamentary staff not competent to count? I’m sure the media can find some numerate journalists to run the calculator over proposals. The rest is the job of Treasury.

It’s not all about throwing money at the problem. Predator Free 2050 shows us that there is a huge amount of volunteer effort willing to go into protecting our taonga. Governments should support, not replace community. And some of our laws need updating to give better protection.

It’s harder than you’d think to spend $1 billion more on conservation. Certainly, you can’t do it all at once, so you have to gear up the projects. An extra billion over four years takes the total conservation budget to 0.75% of government spend. I had to cheat by adding more for science.

The idea of a 1% commitment was not new. The Green Party campaigned for 1% of government spending to go to conservation back in 2011. That was when I first met Vernon Tava. He walked confidently into the Auckland campaign office and offered his services. As the paid Auckland campaign manager running a campaign with only a petty-cash tin, I needed all the help I could get.

Vernon is articulate and self-assured which made him the obvious choice to appear on TV when we needed to sub someone in for Kevin Hague on a discussion panel. He did a great job and so it was that Vernon started his media pundit side-line, mansplaining to the masses.

Fast forward to today. Kevin is CEO at Forest & Bird and is still out campaigning for the 1% conservation commitment. I bumped into him recently making that same policy pitch at the Bluegreen Forum in Nelson. And we have Vernon as the self-appointed interim leader of a new party with one costed policy. Sadly, I lost my friendship with them both along the way.

Not being the best at picking winners, I supported Vernon for Green Party co-leader (although I was not a member). Vernon was pitching for a centrist position and I agreed. Trouble was he was unpopular. Kevin would have been a better pick and naturally he was annoyed. New Zealand may have got more than half a percent for conservation by now with Kevin at the helm.

The Sustainable New Zealand Party may have more policies, but I won’t be writing them. I put together the conservation policy because I passionately believe that it is our duty to protect nature. And I felt obliged to help out a friend. But I quit, because I can spot a lost cause.

Verity Johnson set out the challenge for any party perfectly when she wrote, “The thing you absolutely need in modern politics is a group. It’s all about your tribe, your team, it’s about being back in high school and deciding who you’ll sit with at lunch.” Vernon has not got many people sitting at his table right now. He probably needs to learn how to share.

Extinctions of our native species is our current policy setting by default. But I don’t think we’d make that choice if only we knew how affordable it is to save our native species. It’s time the major parties gave us a better option.

Neil Miller is a public policy writer and an environmental campaigner. The full Sustainable New Zealand Party Conservation Policy can be found here.


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