Gagged and Hogtied by Bureaucrats
Much current discussion in the politics of fishing revolves around the future administration for the public’s recreational sea fishing and the concept of setting up a statutory body. People have spoken and written passionately about the idea of a statutory body and how it would solve the current woes of the recreational fishing sector in being relegated to lowly consideration in management.
In advocating a statutory body, speakers and writers have from time to time referred to Fish and Game as a model to follow. Therein may lie a flaw. Today there are 12 regional fish and game councils and a national New Zealand council.
Strong critics of Fish and Game have been Federated Farmers NZ and government with former and now disgraced cabinet minister Nick Smith reportedly having delivered stern, expletive-laden messages to one or two fish and game councils for their opposition to dirty dairying. Reportedly Nick Smith’s threat was in one tirade to “close down” fish and game councils.
Was it an idle boast? Was it a reckless rant?
Not really for the government has strong powers over Fish and Game.
I have been critical of Fish and Game for not being strong enough advocates on some issues whether it be a dam on a river or some commercialisation or development. When I taxed Fish and Game about it, the response was that they could not speak out because of their statutory responsibility to the Minister of Conservation.
There’s another example that should send a strong warning on the need for caution over a statutory body for recreational sea fishing.
It involves deer and big game hunters
Under the Wild Animal Control Act of 1977, the Minister was given the power to set up a National Recreational Hunting Advisory Committee.
So the minister back about 1980 set up a National Recreational Hunting Advisory Committee “composed of such persons as the Minister thinks fit --- and any advisory committee so established shall hold office during the pleasure of the Minister, and shall have such functions and powers as the Minister may decide.”
The domination by the Minister was so evident. The minister selects who will be on the committee and then decides what it can discuss but at the end of the day it is only “advisory,” and the minister can opt to take no notice.
But the reality was the Minister did not have a clue as to who the best persons might be for council or of decisions made. He went by the advice of the bureaucrats in the then NZ Forest Service. So in essence the bureaucrats pulled the strings of not only the minister but the hunting committee too.
At the time committee members were forbidden to talk publicly. The gags were in place, the hog ties tight.
Another parallel case is conservation boards. Again the departmental bureaucrats “tell” the minister who should be on. Anyone nominee who might be forthright is unlikely to make it. Even if an outspoken individual makes it, the bureaucrats will ensure he or she is well in the minority.
Recalling the Recreational Hunting Advisory Committee of the 1980s is timely for currently a Game Council is being set up and nominations called for. It is a statutory body. The Minister of Conservation Nick Smith will decide who will be appointed to the council, from nominations received.
In other words it will - again - be tantamount to “government appointees” And just as back in 1980 the minister will not know Harry Hunter from Danny Deerstalker so will go on the advice from bureaucrats in the Department of Conservation.
Currently it looks like the recreational hunting public will be a minority voice, heavily outvoted by commercial hunting interests from helicopter operators to game park interests plus perhaps a bureaucrat or two, deer farmers and Federated Farmers. Hardly accidental!
Like the TV comedy, “Yes Minister” will be alive and well - and pulling the strings.
Will a statutory body intent on looking after the interests of the one million New Zealanders who go fishing, be just another puppet pantomime?
Well that’s the challenge in opting for a statutory body. By history bureaucrats will be seeking to hold the power.
The problem is a statutory body would have responsibility to the Minister of Fisheries and any such group would be legally tied by that. It would not allow meaningful freedom of expression or political independence. It could shout loud and long but the Ministry would remain deaf. And judging by a succession of ministers such as the Luxtons, Benson-Popes, Andertons, Heatley, Carter and now Guy the Minister would obediently follow the ministry’s bidding.
If the line of a statutory body was naively pursued and set up, then it’s a one-way-street. There would be no going back unless a government agreed. Recreational fishers - and hunters - would be locked into the administration by the letter of the law.
And if the government administration succeeded in shackling a public recreational sector by a law of Parliament, the bureaucrats in the back rooms would not want to relinquish their hold and control.
Of special significance is an informed source within the commercial fishing industry told me the commercial sector looked at becoming a statutory body but after examination and a realisation of the perils, backed off the idea.
“We (commercial) saw it as a real minefield,” he told me.
Fisheries ministers have been quick to criticise the recreational sector for division and fragmentation. Yes it has been true but is that not human nature? I get annoyed when the Heatleys and Andertons criticise the recreational sector for division or fragmentation. After all, politicians are no better. Political parties have divisions, they have inner cliques, fragmentation and groups even plot and carry out coups. Sometimes political parties implode and end up exploding to smithereens!
So what is the solution? That’s the dilemma. But really the best solution lies with us, each one individually and most importantly, collectively. Collectively the recreational sector has powerful, potent political potential. Eight hundred thousand voters is an incredible weapon at election time.
But inertia and apathy are the mortal enemies.
Were you one of the million Kiwis who couldn’t be bothered voting last election? Did you vote for the party options that showed support for recreational fishing?
That political factor could be termed“ people power.”
Undoubtedly more maturity, less spiteful jealousy and personal self serving agendas with more positive vision and motivation are needed. Idealistically - at the risk of being a cock-eyed optimist - I would like to think sensible people can organise themselves into a cohesive and competent administration that would not be hog-tied by the bureaucrats via an act of Parliament.
It’s over to us, each one of us individually - and together.
In the meantime be aware of the temptation of statutory bodies. Seductive at first glance but past experience says it could be a path to permanent bondage.