RNZ, ECan, the pot and the kettle

My theories on the Greens’ “conspiracies”, which will undermine their brand as much as National’s

The Greens have broken out into a little rash of conspiracy theory. Frog was in yogic contortions last week on her blog, trying to scratch all the itches.

The biggest conspiracy problem facing the Greens right now is fantasising about them, at the expense of political management.

First, Radio New Zealand (RNZ). Sue Kedgley says Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman’s chivvying of the board is part of a longer-term scheme to “starve” the state broadcaster: to undermine the quality of its programming by forcing it to survive on an unsustainable level of funding, and perhaps, to commercialise it.

Second, Environment Canterbury (ECan). Russel Norman has been chipping away since late last year, about Wyatt Creech’s role in the review that recommended ECan’s sacking, issuing press releases, asking questions in the House, and commenting on his Facebook page (“the plot thickens,” he wrote, on learning Creech had resigned his directorship of Open Country Cheese Dairy Ltd). Then Frog jumped in:

Here is a blunt message to Environment Canterbury Councillors Mark Oldfield, Pat Harrow, Angus McKay, and Bronwen Murray: Resign! In December last year you were found by the Auditor-General to have a conflict of interest regarding decisions over water resource management, since you yourselves, as holders of consents regarding water, have significant pecuniary interests in the issue. But you persisted in participating and voting on ECan decisions involving water … Don’t you get it, Councillors? If you have a conflict of interest, you should not even be present at the meeting, let alone voting at it, when water management is being debated!

The post then turned to Creech, whose company Open Country Cheese was fined $55,000 a few years ago, after pleading guilty to 11 charges of illegal effluent management (discharge and storage). This, posited Frog, put Creech in such a conflicted position that he was incapable of heading the ECan inquiry about water, because: “His colours had already been nailed to the mast.”

I’m not saying these are not points worth making or questions worth asking, about the government’s handling of both RNZ and the ECan inquiry. What I am saying is, if you’re going to level allegations, first set your own house in order. And also bear in mind that to the average person not paying close attention from outside – even to the person paying above-averagely close attention – serial conspiracy allegations look a little alarmist and silly. And when they don't get traction, over a period of some months, it might be time to stop pushing.

Sue Kedgley has been, and continues to be, broadcasting spokesperson for the Greens, fronting the RNZ issue: sitting and, presumably, participating on select committee, co-hosting this forum with Grant Robertson, doing the media. Chris Laidlaw, who hosts sleepy Sunday mornings on RNZ, is Kedgley’s brother in law.

If I was, personally, going to light a fire under RNZ, I would surely do it on a Sunday morning. Laidlaw’s meandering questions stoke my impatience to incendiary levels. But in fact, there is no issue of “saving” RNZ, because all it is being asked to do – today, right now – is live within its means and adjust its expectations, like any other government agency, and every other state employee.

I myself don’t believe that the Laidlaw-Kedgley connection impedes her ability to do an honest job on this issue. But by Frog’s severe standards – “you should not even be present at the meeting, let alone voting at it, when water management is being debated!” – I’m not sure how the Greens can countenance Kedgley’s role and presence at meetings and so on, if they honestly hold such views.

Of course, Frog was referring to councillors found by the Auditor-General to have a direct pecuniary interest, unlike Kedgley’s somewhat tangential family connection with RNZ. But surely, Kedgley’s interest is no less tangential than Creech’s alleged ECan conflict. Creech’s dairy interests are Waikato-based, and he has done one or two other things in his life that qualify him to manage such an inquiry.

The first time I read the ECan post, I actually went: huh? I mean, given its opening premise, of dairy interests acting improperly on the council, defying good practice and high-level advice, naturally, one would conclude that the recommendation to sack the council was also a dairy conspiracy.

Perhaps it says more about me than Frog, that it took a while for me to work out the line of argument. If it wasn’t for the dairy interests acting improperly – if they would just ignore their democratic mandate (on which the Greens are also strong), and remove themselves from the picture entirely (“resign!”) – then ECan could operate properly in defence of the Canterbury environment, if only it hadn’t been stymied by bad Mr Creech, who should take a hike too.

But there’s a simpler explanation for Creech’s appointment by the government. Creech was available, competent, and has their confidence. That’s a small pool of people, right there, without any need for a stitch-up. Dairy is a powerful lobby, that they won’t want to aggravate. If even a reviewer who understands dairy farmers’ issues thinks there’s a problem in Canterbury, maybe there’s really a problem; and not just any old dairy farmer either, but a former deputy Prime Minister, and no intellectual slouch. It’s worth bearing in mind here that the ECan recommendations were unanimous, and the Resource Management Act aspects of the work were led by two of the other reviewers, not Creech.

Gauging Norman’s reaction to the government inquiry when it was announced, I wondered then whether Green party members or local councillors were somehow involved. His explanation of the government’s motives seemed peculiarly emphatic, and somewhat contrary to evidence, that ECan had been acting as a robust environmental guardian. Turns out (hat tip: Kiwiblog), things got a little out of hand down there with Green list member and regional councillor Rik Tindall. (And incidentally, Tindall can be found here, mounting a conspiracy theory of his own.)

I dont know the rights and wrongs of all this, and frankly, I cant be bothered in a way, with what looks more and more like a wee political skirmish. Mr Farrar doesn’t bring out the mighty Kiwiblog gun, I’m sure, unless there’s something lurking in the National Party undergrowth. But on the other hand, he does dearly love to bait Greens, and I would have expected chapter and verse from the Greens before now if Mr Tindall had been really badly wronged. Political tit for tat, I’d say, by Farrar, in reaction to the Greens’ pushing on this issue.

Maybe it’s naïve to expect the Greens, as the third largest party in Parliament, to refrain from all politicking; maybe chipping away at National’s support is part of the game. And yet, they do pride themselves on their reputation for substance above politics. If this is an example of how they do politics, I think they had better stick to the substance. The truth is, I think, that Norman et al are reacting loyally, not politically.

That’s nice. Loyalty is a rare quality in Parliament, I daresay, and a fine personal quality. But it has backfired badly, with the Kiwiblog episode, and may continue to in other ways as well, if they persist with this approach. The material presented by Farrar does two things: it shows ECan dysfunction, thus proving the government’s point, and shines a light into a murky Green corner.

I write this from anxiety for where the Greens are headed. This is how it looks from the outside, and this is my fear: if they keep spending their conspiracy currency, they will end up indirectly undermining their own credibility, far more than the National party’s.