Attendees at the Fish and Game council’s hui earlier this month raised concerns over Conservation Minister Nick Smith’s attempt to reduce their ability to advocate for freshwater quality. The Minister is said to have implied that he would restructure the council unless they became less ‘noisy’ and stopped behaving like a ‘rabid NGO’.

David Hayes, who’s the president of the Freshwater Anglers Association, said Dr. Smith’s “bullying” implication was that the Fish and Game Council’s advocacy was getting in the way of economic growth. Radio New Zealand reported that Fish and Game chief executive Bryce Johnson confirmed the minister’s hostile attitude. It’s a pretty short-sighted form of economics that thinks destroying fresh water and fisheries is going to lead to increased wellbeing for people. How many times does it need to be said that the economy is a subset of the environment: setting up an artificial dualism between the two will only mean you stuff them both up.

Dr. Smith’s response has unfortunately been to deny, deny, deny - despite four attendees at the meeting agreeing that he criticised the Council’s stance and described them as ‘worse than Forest and Bird’ - a confusing choice of slur from the man who is paid to be the Minister of Conservation. He has released minutes, yet these show only seven bullet points from a one hour meeting.

This seems like a pretty worrying further case of those in power silencing the ability of Kiwi voices to stand up against the ‘maximise pollution’ agenda. Like the Anadarko Amendment banning protest at sea, the restructuring of the EEZ Act to make deep sea drilling non-notifiable, and the framing of climate change as a partisan issue, voices of dissent that seek to challenge the Government’s extractive and exploitative approach to the natural world are being silenced. There’s a trend of arrogantly riding roughshod over anyone who thinks such policies are harmful and stupid.

Last year the UK’s chief science advisor to the Ministry of the Environment, Professor Ian Boyd, issued the truly disturbing call for scientists to be “the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena.” What kind of science and advocacy will we get if being ‘reasonable’ is defined as the opposite of speaking out? And what kind of Conservation Minister would try and quash a campaign for clean rivers and lakes?

The Fish and Game Council are not Dr. Smith’s to silence: they are a statutory body bound to report to Parliament, not whatever party happens to be in power at the time. Their role is described in Part 5A of the Conservation Act 1987: “to manage, maintain, and enhance the sports fish and game resource in the recreational interests of anglers and hunters, and, in particular,—

  • (a)to assess and monitor—

    • (i) sports fish and game populations; and

    • (ii) the success rate and degree of satisfaction of users of the sports fish and game resource; and

    • (iii) the condition and trend of ecosystems as habitats for sports fish and game:”

If they’re being told to shut up, it’s for doing a good job in the role they are required to fulfil by law.

Nick Smith has a bad track record with heavy-handed interventions. Last September many thought he should resign after it emerged that DOC’s submission on the environmental issues of the Ruataniwha irrigation project was reduced from 34 pages to two paragraphs after he ‘expressed concerns’ with the draft. His allegiance to the National party’s programme for magical infinite dairy expansion has been shown by a Fish and Game commissioned survey to sit badly with many New Zealanders:

“Asked about the country’s reliance on dairy, 37% say the economy is too heavily dependent on the industry, while 31% say the growth of dairying and intensification – running more cows on the same area of land – has gone too far. Only 19% believe the country needs to continue to grow dairy farming.”

“70% say expansion of dairy farming has made the quality of water in New Zealand streams, lakes and rivers worse than it was 20 years ago.”

(Horizon Research: ‘Farming and the environment’, Jan 2014)

Fish and Game have a readership of 76,000+, many of whom I imagine are unimpressed by the prospect of rivers too clogged and toxic for them to fish in. The current agenda of ‘just keep polluting’ is going to alienate more and more Kiwis as it impacts on the activities they love. It’s time for some plans that rely on more than milk powder and denial.

This blog is part of the #election2014 series. The series discusses New Zealand politics and the policies and, sometimes, lack of them, of our political parties. We hope that it provokes a bit of debate.

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