Kate Wilkinson: Conservation’s lame blue duck?

Notes from Kate Wilkinson’s recent talk to a Christchurch tramping club raise real questions about the job she is doing as conservation minister

Note: This post has been edited to reflect questions about the source material.


I have here notes from Mrs Wilkinson’s talk to the Peninsula Tramping Club, on May 11, 2010. The notes, which purport to include a number of direct quotes, came to me via a friend, whose friend attended the talk. The friend of the friend, who wasn’t the note taker, was asked to confirm the notes’ accuracy, and did so.

You can read the notes for yourself here, on ourwaterourvote.org. They are shards taken out of context, which no doubt affects their weight.

Clearly, I would have preferred to read the whole speech for myself, but it has not been publicly released. Nor could I find any other sort of statement of any kind from Mrs Wilkinson describing her approach to conservation policy, that might help in assessing whether her position has been misunderstood or misrepresented. If the Minister would like to do that for Pundit, it would be most welcome.

Meantime, I think it is fair enough to ask: what is the Minister of Conservation’s job? And on the evidence we have to date -- which isn’t confined to the disputed notes -- how well is she doing it?

Within a fortnight or so after the Department of Conservation (DOC) had announced its decision to appeal the Mokihinui consents -- the grant of the consents, not just their conditions -- Mrs Wilkinson was talking to the tramping club. There may have been some unfortunate coincidence of language. On the Mokihinui hydro proposal, she’s said to have observed that the “lake will look stunning”. Compare Meridian’s language here (“the stunning new lake”, at 2.45).

Mrs Wilkinson could find herself a decision-maker at some future date because, regardless of the Resource Management Act consents now being appealed, no activity shall be carried out in a conservation area, unless authorised by a DOC concession. Mrs Wilkinson confirmed this, according to the notes, saying the Mokihinui application still hasn’t come across her desk.

This fact raises an issue quite independent of any dispute about the veracity of the notes. DOC arguably does not need to appeal. It is laudably transparent for them to do so (and to be allowed by the government to do so), and the appeal has been welcomed by conservationists, if not perhaps taxpayers. But the Mokihinui hydro proposal, if opposed on conservation grounds, could be much more simply and cheaply resolved by Mrs Wilkinson declining the concession.

And we are also told, by Mrs Wilkinson’s predecessor Tim Groser in answer to a Parliamentary Question late last year, that a land exchange is being considered by DOC -- finding another piece of land to swap, to see if the government can facilitate this development. Which seems odd, if they are simultaneously spending taxpayer and conservation dollars opposing it. It has been said publicly here on Pundit, and privately to me by other sources, that people understand or believe this issue is still live.

A key issue around land exchange is that this is a solely Ministerial decision, given effect by Gazette notice (as opposed to legislation), with no public consultation requirement. The importance of everybody having confidence that Mrs Wilkinson is approaching it robustly is paramount.

In terms of the Conservation Act, and matters set out by DOC as the basis for its appeal, the land exchange option seems to sit very awkwardly. Under section 16A, the Minister shall not authorise any such exchange unless satisfied that it will enhance the conservation values of land managed by DOC, and promote the purposes of the Conservation Act; and according to case law, it is not open to the Minister within those purposes to consider social and economic factors.

But it might be explained by what was reportedly said to the tramping club. The notes allege that after discussing Mokihinui, Canterbury water, and Schedule 4 mining, Mrs Wilkinson’s word of the evening was “balance”. As the note taker would have it, she said a Conservation Minister’s role was to bring “balance to conservation as well as protection”; and that we need to “make a better use of what we have, without ruining what we have”.

If any such assertion was made by any Conservation Minister, it would be quite wrong, in terms of the statutes she administers. It is expressly not the function of the holder of that portfolio to balance the environment and the economy in terms of National party policy, or to bring any other sort of balance to conservation, beyond that permitted under the relevant Acts, which are tipped heavily towards protection.

DOC functions, on which the DOC mission statement is based, are set out in section 6 of the Act. They include:

  • to manage land and resources for conservation purposes,
  • to advocate the conservation of natural and historic resources and promote the benefits,
  • to foster the use of natural and historic resources for recreation, and to allow their use for tourism.


These are very limited permitted uses, that are permissible only so long as they are not inconsistent with conservation. Similarly, section 4 of the National Parks Act and the ‘conservation’ definition in the Conservation Act, are founded on ‘intrinsic worth’ and ‘intrinsic values’— the point being, such land has value in and of itself, even if no use to us at all.

Others have reacted similarly to encounters with Mrs Wilkinson.

Gary Taylor of the Environmental Defence Society said in the New Zealand Herald: “when a member of the board of inquiry into the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement was so exasperated by comments by Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson and took the unprecedented step of releasing it publicly, her knee-jerk response was to say that protecting the coast didn’t sit well with the Government’s economic development agenda.”

Mr Woollaston, the board of inquiry member, said in his own release that Wilkinson had shown “a surprising lack of awareness of her statutory responsibilities -- both in relation to the review of the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement and to the protection of coastal values ...” and went on to explain why.

Gerry Brownlee recently said it is irrelevant that one Minister (himself) might be ranked number 3 in the Cabinet, and another Minister (Mrs Wilkinson) 20. Anyone who knows Kate Wilkinson, he said, will know that this is nonsense: she is “formidable” around the Cabinet table.

When will she let the rest of us in on that well-kept secret? Being the butt of misunderstandings by one’s stakeholders is not a hallmark of formidable Ministerial competence; and being great at delivering the National party line is not the right qualification for the Minister of Conservation, because in terms of the legislation, it is not a Conservation Minister’s job to just toe the party line.