Tuesday, March 26, 2013

National guts conservation again

Another day, and another bunch of public servants sacrificed to the Moloch of austerity. Today its the Department of Conservation, where 140 jobs are going. To try and put a positive spin on things, the government is saying that they are "largely regional management and administration positions" - "they're just managers, nothing important here". But the blunt fact is that these people do important tasks, and cutting them is going to impact badly on DoC's ability to protect, manage, and enable access to the conservation estate for the enjoyment of New Zealanders.

When we think of DoC, we think of National Parks, great walks, and endangered species. So the people we think of as "frontline staff" whose demise would affect our experience are the people who maintain the tracks, the people who maintain the huts, and the people who babysit the Kakapo. But behind them there's a host of people who do the planning and monitoring, who decide what goes where, where people are visiting (and so which bits need extra tracks and huts), and whether the impacts are acceptable. They also do things like processing and monitoring concessions - consents for businesses to use the conservation estate by e.g. running a white-water rafting business, building a treetop walkway to show off our native species in a new light, or whether to build a monorail. They assess and track the conservation value of different parts of the estate, allowing them to provide factual advice when the Minister of Energy wants to stick a coal mine on it. And they fulfil the Department's statutory function to advocate for conservation values, by using their local knowledge to inform local resource consent decisions. While its "back office", these are important functions. Cutting them is going to mean that stuff doesn't get planned, monitored, processed, or advocated for - which in turn is going to mean a poorer end-user experience. And depending on whether they adopt a precautionary or flailing approach to the administrative overstretch, it is either going to mean reduced public access (as they deny access where impacts cannot be properly measured), or a long-term degradation of the conservation estate (as they let things past which shouldn't be). Most likely both.

Despite National's rhetoric, there is no free lunch in public sector austerity. There is no "waste" that can magically be cut to save money without impacting on service delivery. These cuts are going to hurt DoC's core functions. And we need to hold National accountable for them.

(But I guess this is what happens to a department which tells Gerry Brownlee that its not OK to dig up our national parks...)