Whose Heritage?

The Progressive Greens Suggest An Approach to Managing Conservation
Listener: 23 March, 1996.

Keywords: Environment & Resources;

This year I thought I would occasionally write columns about specific policies of political parties which are unlikely to get elected to parliament, but whose policy deserves wider consideration. The first example is a proposal of the Progressive Greens, who seek “more-market” solutions to environmental problems. Thus they have thought more than most about how we should manage the conservation estate of national parks, forests parks, scenic reserves and other conservation areas, arguing that it should not be under direct ministerial control.

This column, taking a slightly different but not unsympathetic approach, starts with how the conservation estate is included in the government accounts (a.k.a. “the Crown Accounts”). It does not appear among the assets of the Department of Conservation whose function is to manage the estate. Rather the conservation estate appears separately in the Crown Accounts in a category called “Other Assets”, together with other heritage assets such as the collections of National Archives and the National Library.

Now accounting can be very boring. (The details are readily forgettable, especially if you are a witness at the winebox inquiry.) But what is the significance of the conservation estate being treated exactly the same as military equipment, buildings, commercial forests, cash and marketable securities, state owned enterprises and so on? (I spent a bit of time trying to understand how one values a national park for the purposes of the Crown Accounts. The current valuation of the conservation estate of $765m is subject to a large margin of error, especially for something which many describe as “priceless”.)

By treating all its assets much the same, the Crown Accounts appear to be imply that they could all be sold off or privatized. We may argue, for instance, whether Electricorp should be sold, but – ideologues aside – the debate involves various practical economic issues (which lead me to conclude it should not). However one cannot imagine a national park such as Tongariro being sold by the state. It is qualitatively quite a different sort of asset.

The very point of an conservation estate is that it should not be alienated. There are marginal exceptions as when some scrubby countryside was swapped with a farmer for a smaller area of qualitatively superior native bush. But swapping to improve the overall estate is different from selling bits of it. (Another issue is there are Maori claims. But even so the Maori wants to maintain the nation’s conservation estate, albeit under their rangatiratanga rather than the government’s.)

The logic is that the conservation estate should be in a separate trust account, which would still appear in the Crown Accounts (and even in the balance sheet), but it would be marked off as distinct from those assets which can be sold off. This trust notion also applies to the other heritage assets: the stock of National Archives and the National Library, various heritage buildings (which are currently treated just like any commercial buildings in the Crown Accounts), and the collections in the national museum and art gallery. In current circumstances if one gifts something to the Crown, there appears to be hardly any restraint on the Crown onselling it – as was brutally exposed by the Treasury proposal to privatize the “non-New Zealand” part of the Alexander Turnbull Library Collection. No wonder some people are thinking of alternative arrangements for their precious heritage possessions.

If a heritage estate is in a trust, it needs trustees. As far as I can understand the current situation the trustees, in sofar as there are any, may be parliament, the government (or the minister), and/or the Treasury. Nothing is explicit. The Department of Conservation is not the trustees of the estate, but its manager. One has to say that its staff carry out their task with a fierce devotion, which gives them a guardianship-like role. Even so, there is a case for a separation of their management from the trusteeship. (It is not quite a funder-provider split, but in the same spirit, advocated here on pragmatic rather than ideological grounds.)

So not only should the estate be in a separate trust in the Crown Accounts, but parliament should appoint trustees, who would be the formal guardians (katiaki) of our conservation estate. Assuming the trustees had a commitment to the estate (and are not the usual string of party hacks, business people, accountants and commercial lawyers which the government seems besotted with in its patronage appointments) the trustees would become a strong lobby for the preservation and enhancement of the conservation estate. It would both monitor in an intelligent way, the activities of the Department of Conservation, and be a vigorous advocate to ensure there was adequate funding for those activities.

Parliament, rather than government, appointing the trustees involve negotiations between the parliamentary parties, ensuring the board of trustees of the conservation estate would reflect the overall balance of the electorate rather than just that of the ruling party. In its wisdom parliament should appoint at least one Progressive Green.