Democracy is Fragile Even in Outdoors Issues

Opinion by Tony Orman

Way, way back in 1974 I wrote to the Labour government and in particular the Minister of Internal Affairs Henry May, about a government proposal to reorganise acclimatisation societies the predecessor of today’s fish and game councils.

The proposal to “reorganise” was a thinly disguised attempt to impose state control on the politically independent acclimatisation society structure of the democratically elected councils.

Most concerning was the proposal for a national executive which would see sportsmen’s representatives of just four (4) in a minority to government appointees of six (6). 

Politely but firmly, I made my opposition clear. I was not alone. Many trout anglers and duck shooters were concerned too.

The reply from Henry May was startling.

In a three page typed letter he ranted back about how great his department’s scheme was and then berated me as being “ignorant, emotionally obsessed and loose with the facts.”

Somewhat naive and concerned at the tenor of May’s reaction, I consulted my friend John B Henderson, president of the NZ Deerstalkers Association, about the three page tirade. He laughed.

“You’ve hit a raw nerve, lad” he exclaimed. “Well done! If you hadn’t hit that raw nerve, they would’ve brushed you off with a polite ‘thank-you-for-your- views’ reply.”

Friends reaction to Minister Henry May’s tirade was that it was “appalling for a public servant”. 

Comments were “What happened to democracy and the people’s viewpoint?” to “what a plonker”, “a bad joke” plus one or two friends laughing as they suggested May had correctly psycho-analysed me!

I then sought an interview with Prime Minster Bill Rowling in Picton which came into his electorate. Ted Bason, good friend and fellow Marlborough Acclimatisation Society councillor, came with me. On the arranged time, Ted and I stepped into the interview room at the Oxley hotel on Picton’s waterfront. I introduced myself and before I could introduce Ted, the Prime Minister erupted.

“I know who you are!” he shouted. “You took a swing at my minster!”

He continued to shout and rant. Ted and I stood there rather bemused at the Prime Minister out of control of himself. 

Red faced, PM Rowling recovered somewhat and spluttered “Ahem, well what do you want to see me about?”

It was all very bizarre and unreal, but it was happening.

Seriously though, even back then, attempts at state control of acclimatisation societies was nothing new.

Some attempts have been more subtle and not so blatant but nevertheless they have occurred.

Fish and Game Review

The most recent attempt at a state takeover was two years ago, by the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour government via the Department of Conservation. It probably was the 15th or 16th assault as far as I can ascertain. 

And like Henry May’s scheme, the proposals would’ve seen government appointees – or state puppets – on not only the national council but also on regional fish and game councils and with full voting rights.

New Zealand governments have been trying to grab control of the democratically elected Fish and Game organisation for decades. 

In 2017 former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer wrote a startling blog post expressing concern about the state of democracy in New Zealand. It surely should have been headline news but it wasn’t. Which raises a large question marks about the media’s competency and sense of responsibility. 

Palmer’s statement was aimed at a National government, led by John Key.

Palmer had very good reason to be concerned. One action by the government was totally unprecedented.

Almost eleven years ago, on April Fool’s day (April 1) 2010, Nick Smith, then minister for the environment and government sacked the democratically elected Environment Canterbury (ECan) council and replaced it with state commissioners by passing the ECan Act.

The move outraged the Law Society Rule of Law Committee which denounced the ECan Act as repugnant to the Rule of Law. Most were appalled.

But it went through pushed by National’s Nick Smith.

Palmer’s Hypocrisy

But when you think about it and back to 1984, Geoffrey Palmer was guilty of hypocrisy.  Incidentally “1984″ is the title of George Orwell’s famous novel about “Big Brother is watching you” and a draconian dictatorship that ruled.

In 1984 Palmer as a senior cabinet minister was in the 4th government which had swept to power at the election of 1984, promising open government and giving people the say.

It started well. Led by David Lange as PM, the 4th Labour government held a Summit Conference proclaiming a new day in democracy and public consultation.

But within months Rogernomics was born and democracy was tossed into the incinerator.  Public assets were sold without asking the owners, i.e. the public.

Democracy was under attack.

Since the erosion has gone on and is accelerating today as Geoffrey Palmer hypocritically warned in 2017.

Because I’m familiar with outdoor issues in particular I’ll deal with issues relating to the outdoors and environment.

In April 2016 Nick Smith was at his dictatorial best when he removed the right of local councils to consider and hear submissions on 1080 poison aerial drops and put the final – and only say – with central government i.e. Minister Nick Smith with any public input obliterated. 

Strange philosophically for a National government, the 1080 issue and the ECan takeover were akin to dictatorial state control.

Select Committees

I can recall making submissions on trout farming in the early 1970s where I was allowed to speak for an hour and then answer questions from MPs for half an hour. I made submissions to other Select Committees. To the Maori Fisheries Bill 1990 I was granted over an hour.

But the erosion of democracy was underway. 

In 2004 the government’s ERMA review of 1080 was a “kangaroo court” with submitters restricted to only five minutes. it was a token gesture to consultation – lip service only. 

The ERMA panel wasn’t interested in submissions.

After all, the two big poison spreaders DOC and OSPRI, had requested the review. That was a pointer to it being a farce. The ERMA review of 1080 gave the poison the green light.

The Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations of New Zealand (CORANZ) in 2020 warned that parliament’s select committee democratic process was being undermined to the detriment of the public giving submissions.

CORANZ Chairman Andi Cockroft made an oral submission to a select committee dealing with amendments to the Resource Management Act (RMA). 

After being beforehand, granted 15 minutes speaking time the chairman presumably Labour’s Duncan Webb, interrupted Andi Cockroft’s submission after five minutes and said the committee had heard enough thereby cutting the oral presentation short by ten minutes.

It was an insult to Andi, CORANZ and to democracy.

PM – Senior Public Servant

As for Duncan Webb, MPs are really public servants voted in to serve the public interest. Don’t call our Prime Minister our leader. 

The Prime Minister is simply the most senior public servant in NZ. 

The National government was voted out in 2017. 

But the new coalition government of Labour, Greens and NZ First, despite on being elected promising transparency, continued the government trend of eroding democracy. 

Firearm law changes following the Christchurch March 15, 2019 mosque tragedy, were rushed through in just a few days. Over 12,000 submissions were said to have been considered in just two days – defying credibility.

Inevitably the ram-raid law was bad law and drew criticism from law experts. The mosque massacre was carried out by an Australian terrorist who should never have been granted a firearm license by the New Zealand police. Glaring inadequacies in his application were ignored. All the law did was target law-abiding New Zealanders who legally owned firearms and ignore gangs and criminals.

Other laws have been rammed through by the Labour government in virtual coalition with the Green and Maori partiers, characterised by indecent haste and snubs to public input and democracy.

Jordan Williams executive director of the Taxpayers’ Union said of the Maori Wards Bill’s speedy passage, “This law is a brazen attempt to hijack local democracy, and the use of Parliamentary urgency betrays of the promise of open and transparent government.”

Democracy Abandoned?

Whether the issue be the firearm laws, 1080, ECan, RMA, Maori wards or other issue, what is important and so very alarming is the erosion that as it continues, borders on abandoning democracy.

Some columnists have examined the erosion of democracy. A number have identified complacency by the public or in other words apathy. 

Greek philosopher Plato wrote “The price of apathy is to be ruled by evil men.”

I’m deeply concerned that New Zealanders seem oblivious. Sure, some were numbed by the Rogernomics dictatorship of the 1980s. 

However others just couldn’t give a stuff born out of selfishness with no thought for future generations.

Respected writer and columnist Karl du Fresne looked at complacency, saying: “One thing we do very well in this country, besides rugby, is evasion of responsibility. We get reports and inquiries, hollow apologies and hand-wringing … and then it’s back to business as usual”. He found there is a glaring “accountability deficit” throughout New Zealand.

The public believe Parliament is the place of democracy – where you could get a fair hearing from elected representatives based on a historical and moral constitution of honour, truth and justice. It is not a charade.

But it is a charade and more – a bad joke.

Little wonder then that the public rates politicians, political parties and governments as among the most untrustworthy.

No matter the issue, democracy is being undermined by politicians and bureaucrats.

Advocate for democracy should be a top issue heading to election day 2023.

To reiterate, it’ doesn’t seem to matter what the issue is. It is spreading like an insidious, ugly cancer.

The outdoors and environment are not immune to the deliberate erosion of democracy.



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