Imagine that, mining a bit of Great Barrier. Imagine that, the Chinese owning our dairy farms.
Get over it. Imagine being Barack Obama today – praised by Fidel Castro for his health reforms. New Zealand being criticised by The Economist for threatening its green image by mining conservation land pales in comparison.
Imagine being a Pom, waking up this morning to discover that The Independent, a constantly unprofitable but modern bastion of English liberal journalism, is now owned by a billionaire Russian oligarch. Aargh!
In fact, if what Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee wanted was a signal to the world’s biggest mining companies that New Zealand’s mineral wealth is “open for business,” there could really be nothing more useful than having The Economist point out that a spot of careful mining in national parks is available here. That item will turn up in clipping services, and their on-line equivalents, delivered to senior executives of those mining companies everywhere.
“Hmm,” they will say. “Usual greeny carping, but it’s doable if we do it right.”
This is not the Helen Clark Labour Government of 1999 that stopped the experiment in logging beech forests on the West Coast, an intriguing and scientifically compelling example of what sustainability perhaps could look like. The chance to prove it was stopped.
And yes, no one could be sure about the outcomes. There were some scary diagrams suggesting great clumps of deforested bush where the canopy would be knocked back from its old growth status. But nobody was sure, and the results were interesting, albeit politically unacceptable to the government of the day. That was the end of the Timberlands SOE.
This is a different government. It has a sense of smell, proven by the fact that it baulked at the mining proposals for so long because of New Zealand’s clarity about the importance of environmental integrity.
It’s a guess, but here’s a theory. This week’s mining announcements had been stuck on the Cabinet table for weeks. Action Man Brownlee was fretting and he pushed hard to get this stuff out. Who knows? Maybe the Cabinet logic ran: let’s get this dead rat released and it’ll confuse the natives when we do the mid-week welfare reforms. If so, it probably kind of worked.
For a start, the numbers in favour of testing the country’s mineral wealth is overwhelmingly strong. If half the population will admit to a pollster they’d dig for gold if it meant a richer country, you’d better believe there’s a lot of green waverers out there – who used to believe in climate change but grudgingly, let off the hook by the failure at Copenhagen, are now willing to hear a new, more optimistic story.
And for a certain type of National voter, a pro-mining, anti-welfare sentiment is just the ticket.
Meanwhile, making peace with New Zealand’s environmentalist conscience is fairly simple.
Don’t mine Great Barrier, go easy on Coromandel. Check out the platinum and rare earth metals in the Paparoa National Park – they are the minerals of future technologies to a greater extent than gold – we all get that.
Don’t let anyone make a mess. Let’s remember that Ianthe Scenic Reserve – proposed by National as a new Schedule 4 untouchable reserve – hides a moonscape created in one of the last indiscriminate rimu fellings in the mid-1990′s.
That’s getting to be a while ago. A lot has been learned.
The government’s commitment to the environment is obvious from the way it flayed the farmers over dirty dairying last week. It is serious about working out what to do about Canterbury water. It is unsympathetic to the appalling example of farming practice set by the Crafar family. Someone will always be the lowest cost operator. And that operator will always be on the cusp of regulatory compliance.
If the country gets poorer, it will probably thrive. If the economy is supporting a higher level of environmental protection and standards, it will face pressure to improve or fail. Unfortunately, the Crafars failed.
The Chinese would-be buyers, fronted by Chinese national and New Zealand citizen May Wang, were already negotiating with the Crafars for their farms and some 20,000 unusually genetically unsophisticated cattle, before environmental regulatory non-compliance tipped them into receivership earlier this year.
At the time, one of the Crafars issued what resonated as a dog-whistle racist threat, that he’d just sell to the Chinese. What he didn’t say was that he’d already been planning to.
So anyway May Wang’s Natural Dairy crew may be the 2010 version of the wine box, Rocky Cribb, European Pacific, and other Winston Peters scandals. Or maybe May Wang is a hard-working entrepreneur who’s had some setbacks. Who knows? In the end the Chinese will be buying our dairy – and as Fonterra would attest, we are buying theirs.