The previous Government’s endangered birds came home to roost yesterday as Opposition MPs clashed with the Conservation Minister at a Select Committee over conservation funding.
At an at-times tense Environment Committee meeting, Conservation Minister argued that Conservation had been underfunded for the entire term of the National Government and now it was catchup time.
That was why there was a $76 million contingency on the Conservation vote in this year’s Budget.
But because she could not give particulars about how it might be spent the National MPs on the Committee were quick to pounce.
“If I rocked up in the private sector and said could I have $76 million and we’ll come back to you and tell you what we are going to spend it on, it wouldn’t get through the boardroom,” said National MP Todd Muller.
Sage produced a graph showing the Department of Conservation’s funding track since 2002.
What is clear is that for the nine years of the National Government, DoC’s fund was frozen; rising only 0.37% between the 2008 Budget and the 2017 Budget when inflation over that period came to over 16%.
One immediate consequence of that cut was that the department had to let 200 of its 2000 staff go over the period National was in power at a time when the conservation estate was under siege from predators, bio security issues and tourism as arrivals went up by 53%.
“We have a department that has been underfunded over the last decade,” said Sage.
“That means there is a lot of unmet need there so it is quite difficult for a department in a few months to develop all the detail of where all the additional funding should go.
“That’s why the contingency requires a business case to be presented to myself and the Minister of Finance and approved with the detail of where that $76 million will be spent.”
Muller then asked: “So you are saying your department did not have the capacity when it went through the budget process to have sensible projects to put in front of you in the terrestrial, freshwater and marine perspective. That’s weak?”
Sage: “I guess Mr Muller with things like threatened species the last Government did a very glossy strategy which had a large number of submissions of it being a glossy document.
“So I have said to the department we need a clear action plan in the biodiversity space for Predator Free 2050.
“We need a clearer indication of what the priorities are so that public money is well spent.”
This was not enough for the National MPs.
National’s Environment spokesperson Scott Simpson told Sage that she had had all the answers when she was in Opposition.
“Why now is it so difficult,” he asked.
“I think it’s incredible.
“She sat here a year ago with all the answers and now in the nine months since she has been a Minister has been a spectacular failure; done nothing and appears to have no answers.”
Sage: “I think that is an oversimplification, Mr Simpson.”
Simpson: “Well what have you achieved?”
Sage: “I have achieved the biggest single increase in operational funding for DoC since 2002.
“The last Government was in place for all those years; there was a substantial cut in funding …”
At that point both Simpson and National MP Sarah Dowie started complaining loudly together about Sage’s comments.
Committee Chair Deborah Russell called them to order.
Simpson then said the Minister shouldn’t be making provocative comments.
“Mr Simpson is claiming that I have done nothing,” said Sage.
“Getting that major increase in funding for the department was my priority because we have a severe bio-diversity crisis.
“The department was not able to do sustained landscape control.
“I have encountered jubilation across NGO’s in the conservation sector and elsewhere about the ability for that fund to allow the department to plan.
“It is on a much better footing now to tackle the predator crisis, and if Mr Simpson wants to play politics and say nothing is done, that is a gross overstatement.”
But Muller and Simpson hadn’t finished.
One of the ways DoC had been coping with its declining budget was to enlist private sector sponsorship for a number of conservation programmes.
After the committee had finished Dowie, who is National’s Conservation spokesperson, issued a statement saying that the private sector had provided $100 million in funding.
Companies as diverse as Mitre 10, Toyota and Dulux paints have been among DoC’s sponsors.
Muller suggested to Sage that philosophically she had never been very comfortable with the department partnering with businesses.
“I think that what is needed is to ensure that funding goes through a third party and that avoids any risk of a potential conflict of interest,” she said.
She cited a Fulton and Hogan sponsorship for the Takahe programme which went through the National Parks and Conservation Foundation.
“That’s been critical in providing assistance for the takahe project.
“That’s a really good example of where there is an arm’s length relationship to ensure that there is no risk of a conflict of interest and policies changing to assist an organisation which is providing funding.”
Muller wasn’t satisfied with that.
“You don’t want big business partnership anywhere near the Department of Conservation,” he said.
Sage: “I don’t want big business partnerships influencing departmental policy.”
She said that the partnerships needed to ensure that the Department could carry out its work rather than feeling that it had to things in a particular way because it depended on corporate funding.
“This is why Budget 2018 is so important because it makes that investment in conservation, so it is not reliant on corporate donations.”
And it was always going to come back to that.
In a sense Sage is on a rescue mission at DoC as she restores its ability to do its job and also its legislative role, unique for a Government department, to act as an advocate for conservation values, particularly in planning hearings.
She is the first Green to hold the portfolio, and with her own conservation background in Forest and Bird, she brings an enormous passion to the job.
That much was apparent yesterday.