In the recent era of Parliamentary Politics in New Zealand, the Cabinet posts the Prime Minister assigns themselves are more symbolic than they are functional. Once upon a time, not so long ago, the PM would fancy themselves as a bit of an expert in a particular policy field and would duly take charge of it while attending to stately duties. Muldoon’s iron fist gripped the Finance portfolio for three terms; Lange’s first-term stint as Foreign Affairs Minister elevated both our oratorical expectations and our international reputation. Since 1999, the two main parties have focussed more of their policy, strategy and political capital on the skill and personality of their leader. Over the same period, newsroom budgets have shrunk, aiding and abetting this concentration. It is cheaper and easier to have journalists trail the PM, rather than the whole of cabinet, who now more than ever dive, deflect and defer when questions are put to them.
Too busy being in charge of everything to be in charge of anything, our two Prime Ministers since 1999 have pegged their Ministerial warrants (excluding the Executive & Intelligence functions that come with the job) to leisure pursuits rather than vital strategic roles. Helen Clark served 9 years as Minister for Arts, Culture & Heritage. After assuming office in 2009, John Key made himself Minister of Tourism. From this one strategic decision, allow me to extrapolate wildly and sketch a portrait of their interests and ideologies. In Aunty Helen we had a leader who appreciated the value of asking complicated questions about abstract concepts like nationhood and personhood. Questions that didn’t have neat or tidy or even convenient answers. Most importantly, she appreciated the value of the people asking the questions, and her Government helped keep the struggling artist dream alive through initiatives like the PACE scheme (‘Artist’s Dole’).
John’s Ministry, on the other hand, is pointed mainly at recruiting wealthy visitors to spend a lot of money quickly, making tourism operators rich, on the back of however many minimum wage jobs it takes to stay afloat. Visit Hobbiton, drink some Central Otago Pinot, jump off a bridge, play some golf, head home again. It’s problematic when the visitors stick around and start to ask pesky questions about the sustainability or value of such an approach, so just keep the revolving door of bulging wallets spinning as fast as we can.
Tourism New Zealand’s two biggest campaigns to attract these wallets for their adrenaline fuelled emptying are the “100% Pure” brand campaign, and Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations. Both of these are augmented versions of the same thing: New Zealand’s iconic landscape, wild and varied and pristine. So why has the Prime Minister, the Minister of Tourism, slowly but surely declared war on our Greatest Asset? Let me count the ways: plans to open up the Conservation estate to mining, angry responses to scientists questioning the 100% Pure assertion, inaction over the poor quality of our waterways, firing Department of Conservation staff, gutting the Resource Management Act, investing heavily in irrigation during our worst drought in 70 years, watching oil spill out onto our beaches while they entertain risky deep sea drilling, stopping people in Canterbury from electing their own representatives to oversee the management of their environment, weakening the Emissions Trading Scheme and making the agriculture sector exempt indefinitely, firing more Department of Conservation staff and having a Deputy Prime Minister who is, publicly at least, skeptical about the impact of human behaviour on climate change.
Why would the Minister of
Hobbiton Tourism allow such a comprehensive assault on the very same environment that let him hold hands with Big Business and shake hands with Real Celebs? The most obvious answer is that Key has never been interested in what happens to his party, let alone the country, when he gets bored of being the boss and goes back to playing rounds of golf for small island principalities. But perhaps what we’re seeing here is the opening gambit in a move to seriously downsize our great wilderness. Having fewer DoC staff won’t be a problem if we just shrink the area they are responsible for, and what do you know if there isn’t mineral wealth (Just like Australia!) in the land that gets left behind. Trying to maintain all of our current National Parks at a level befitting even the ludicrously ‘aspirational’ 100% Pure brand is an expensive business. If we shrink the parks and mine the rest, we also won’t need so much water in those areas and we can filter that off to dairy farms the length and breadth of the country. Lastly, fewer elections – or fewer powers of oversight for those democratically elected bodies – means fewer pesky, complicated questions. John Key hates pesky, complicated questions because they get in the way of all the progress.
New Zealand’s environment is no longer considered by our Government to be an asset for the people of this country, and the future generations to come, to use at their discretion. Our ability to swim in our rivers and lakes, to climb our mountains and hike around our stunning vistas has become secondary to how the same areas can be manipulated as bait to lure wealthy tourists. John Key has said he is open to corporate sponsorship of the Conservation Estate, but I do wonder how big a leap it is from here to having parts of it privately owned by luxury accommodation providers. What a coup for Millbrook if they had a patch of exclusive native bush to go next to the golf course in their brochure! Just small amounts mind, to free up some capital for schools and hospitals and that. What, do you hate schools and hospitals? Didn’t think so.