Al Morrison’s conser-vision

DOC’s Director-General has a new ‘bluegreen’ conservation vision: follow the money to business partnership, because the country’s broke, and along the way further downsize his own little threadbare empire. What kind of Chief Executive is this?

“If we were truly successful I think the taxpayer funding of the protection of New Zealand’s biodiversity would be minimal,” says Al Morrison. Another mark of success, he suggests, is that the Department of Conservation would be smaller.


Greens co-leader Russel Norman called the Director-General’s speech at Lincoln University last month “brave”. He meant that it departed from core government ‘balancing the economy and the environment’ policy. The speech said that the economy depends on the environment, therefore, we have to put the environment first. That's Green party, not government policy. Morrison also traversed one or two other Green policies.

But I myself think that Nick Smith, at least, would have been a happy man. It was a ‘bluegreen’ speech.

I asked Green party conservation spokesperson Kevin Hague for comment, and got none — which might or might not have been pointed silence. I, too, have been hatching this post for a month — trying to figure out if the speech was a platitudinous non-event, or a green-painted Trojan horse.

Morrison says that “for all our exaltations, we keep on trashing the place”. He points to biodiversity loss: “That we are relatively Clean and Green and 100 Percent Pure, is little credit to our deliberate efforts. The brand is largely available to us because we have had relatively little time and few people … But we are as guilty as any party of depleting and degrading our natural capital.”

Also,“New Zealand has been living beyond its means for 37 years in a row, and now it has caught up with us. Our economy is dangerously exposed, seriously out of balance, and facing huge adjustments.” In the 2009 budget, DOC had a $54 million funding cut. Morrison’s future funding aspirations are cut down to similar size: there won’t be much of it, he thinks.

But he wants more conservation, and says that to get it, we’ll need to rationalise it differently: “Unseemly though it may appear to nature lovers, we have to appeal at a less lofty level.”

He refers to other non-GDP focused wealth measures: “The way we conventionally describe and measure economic progress is an incentive to ignore the impacts of unsustainable natural resource use”. Failure to correct this, he argues, will affect our wealth: our “gambling with nature’s tolerance” will bring down GDP in the end, as well as the environment.

There is, in other words, a business case for change, and he says that businesses — some "enthusiastically", some "willingly", some "grudgingly" — are starting to see market advantage in this conservation lark.

He wants to weave conservation into the fabric of our thinking and decision-making: “sustainable management of natural resources is not just about nice things to do when time and discretionary resources are available”. He wants a business hook-up:

We have … established a commercial business unit in the department that will seek out the opportunities and work with the business leaders who are committed to achieving greater prosperity for New Zealand through an enhanced environment. True to form, it has attracted ideological reaction from those who see conservation and business as incompatible bedfellows. Those who would refuse to see beyond the intrinsic argument for nature protection have a responsibility to provide a realistic alternative route to financing the conservation work that needs to be done on a scale that cannot realistically be achieved by taxpayers alone.

He may have, wryly, had in mind last summer’s “desecration” and “tragedy” at Coromandel’s Cathedral Cove, that “tainted the untouched paradise”.

Bad choice of 'bedfellows' metaphor, though. Since he, presumably, wasn’t wanting to imply anyone would be getting screwed by anyone else …

You might say I've already gotten quite used to looking past other, non-intrinsic, more 'base' rationalisations. One hears quite a lot about 'the children', which rather misses the point — because it’s still self-interest, still all about us, our species. But whatever works, and gets the job done, in the end.

I am, nonetheless, a bit beady about his speech.

I want to know what, in practice, he means. I mean, if he's going to dump a 20-year old statutory principle about intrinsic conservation value from its lofty height, in favour of getting down and dirty on the ground with the practical outcomes, I think it's not unreasonable to ask what those practical outcomes will be — but the speech didn't say.

Short of that, it just offers up a new sort of idealistic holy grail; and along the way, King Al is bound to tangle with all sorts of bad guys, as well as making friends with some good ones.

He says: “The biggest obstacle to giving substance to [an awakening by New Zealand business that nature-friendly practices are our market advantage] is the lack of baselines and metrics that can be used to assess and manage the impact on biodiversity of an activity at a place.” This sounds benign, like DOC holding hands with business, to “quantify the impact on biodiversity of development activity at a place”, and help lead them along the right road.

The speech wasn’t just about halting biodiversity decline, though. It was about funding conservation.

So, will he make the estate work harder for its keep, by inviting more business on to it, to generate funding?

Ironically, that sounds more like the old mindset, than a new one, where the intrinsic value of conservation’s ecosystem services and other services is ignored, or not given much weight. But why not, as long as it doesn’t damage the intrinsic value, and might help it? Is 'filthy commerce' itself damage?

What about whether physically damaging activity somewhere, not necessarily on conservation land, can be 'offset' by another, different kind of good activity? Morrison offers mining and energy as examples, and there are half a dozen recent such examples, of those industries trying to buy off massive irreversible damage: the Mokihinui River hydro proposal; Solid Energy’s Stockton and other activities; the Schedule 4 mining royalty and conservation fund proposals. Doesn't sound good. Can the extinction of a species be paid for, by improving a habitat somewhere else?

Or (in the light of his comments about DOC ideally being smaller), does he see this business-friendliness embracing some public-private partnerships? Might this give rise to questions, from time to time, about who owns the ‘conservation estate’, like Tuhoe’s claim to the Urewera National Park?

Al Morrison, as most will know, was RNZ National’s former political editor, a journalist. He salted his new recipe with enough Green ideas that it got little cover — made it just down at heel and wack enough, frankly, to marginalise it more than it deserved, and probably about as much as he wanted.  

Al Morrison, the man now standing guard over the conservation estate, seems primed to open the gate, it's just not clear how wide — whereupon, any government so inclined might drive its ideological truck right through.

That’s a good enough reason to keep a beady eye on it, and him.