Hysterical? Who's being hysterical? Not the media, Prime
If anyone is suffering from a slight touch of hysteria it is
As much as one can tell, it appears to be engaged in a
frantic rewrite of a long-awaited discussion paper whose
original purpose was to soften up the public to the idea of
mining companies digging for dollars in the country's
If John Key really thinks the news media are getting a little
hysterical, it has to be assumed the contents of the document
are now relatively innocuous, to allow him to make such a
However, should the final version still echo the gung-ho
sentiment of Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee when he talked
bullishly last August of "unlocking New Zealand's mineral
potential" by means of a "stock-take" of schedule four of the
Crown Minerals Act, then the Prime Minister will soon
discover what true hysteria really means.
Mr Key ain't seen nothing yet.
The national debate on schedule four - the provision which
blocks commercial exploitation of minerals buried in national
parks, marine reserves and other areas deemed to be of "high
conservation value" - has barely begun.
But the Government has already been given an early warning of
what it can expect.
Using the classic slow Sunday "drop" to the media - a day
when there is usually little news around - Forest and Bird
knocked the Government sideways with leaked information
revealing the extent of National's plans to open up land
currently off limits to mining companies.
It is not the first time Kevin Hackwell, Forest & Bird's
advocacy manager, has pinged a government in such a
In the 1980s, Mr Hackwell, operating in tandem with fellow
peace activist Nicky Hager, succeeded in mobilising public
opinion against the purchase of the navy's two current Anzac
The navy got its ships only because the-then Labour
government was forced to buy the largely Australian-built
vessels to help repair transtasman relations severely
strained by New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy.
Had the public mood been the criterion, events would have
taken a very different course.
The lesson for Mr Key is that he can expect one heck of a
fight over mining.
Mr Hackwell is a professional when it comes to fighting such
And he is not alone.
The conservation lobby has plenty of activists with lots of
passion and energy.
It has widespread backing from many more people who choose to
limit their activism to membership of conservation
organisations or sympathetic political parties like Labour
and the Greens.
Beyond that is an even wider group, who are sympathetic to
the ideals of the conservation lobby.
And beyond that is an even larger group, for whom the
sanctity of national parks is one component of the New
Mr Key claimed this week that National's private polling
showed more than 50% backing for mining in national parks,
while the results of a Close Up phone-in poll were split
50-50 for and against.
This is politically charged territory, however.
Politicians mess with it at their peril.
Public opinion can quickly turn - something the anti-mining
lobby knows implicitly and which Mr Key seems to have
Originally due last October, the discussion paper's release
has been postponed several times, presumably to make its
recommendations more palatable.
To justify the policy in the context of his desired
"step-change" in economic growth, the Prime Minister keeps
repeating the stock phrase that a balance has to be struck
between the economic imperative to dramatically increase the
number and range of mining operations and the Government
fulfilling its environmental responsibilities.
This is public relations flim-flam.
The extraction of minerals and the protection of areas of
high conservation value are mutually exclusive concepts.
You can do either one or the other.
Mr Key would obviously disagree.
But he only needs to chat to his front-bench colleague Nick
Smith, who noted the basic incompatibility as Minister of
Conservation in 1997, when Schedule Four was inserted in the
Crown Minerals Act.
The amending legislation, he said at the time, at long last
put some "pegs in the sand" which meant New Zealand's
national parks were now "no-go areas" areas for mining
Nothing has changed since to give Messrs Key or Brownlee any
reason beyond a newfound economic rationale to remove those
In the absence of the discussion paper and any estimates of
new jobs and increased royalties, that rationale has been
The difficulty for Messrs Key and Brownlee is that any
meaningful contribution by mining to the economic step-change
is going to require opening up a lot of land to mining -
something confirmed by Forest and Bird's leaked information.
A separate Cabinet paper released last year under the
Official Information Act shows officials from Mr Brownlee's
Ministry of Economic Development and the Department of
Conservation debated repealing schedule four altogether.
That was considered too politically sensitive.
The review was adopted instead - the only concession secured
by Doc, which was otherwise completely rolled by the
The political consequences of a review were ignored, however,
as Med officials salivated over the possibility of mining in
the Coromandel and the Kahurangi and the Paparoa national
Left unanswered was the question of how mining was supposedly
going to be unobtrusive in these areas, given minerals are in
such low concentration that underground mining would be
Was National going to allow open-cast mining to have open
slather in Coromandel - the closest thing Aucklanders have to
a national park on their doorstep?
Those questions were raised again this week by Forest and
Bird's uncovering of the Government's plans to allow mining
in 7000ha of high-value conservation land in the Paparoa
National Park and on Great Barrier Island and Coromandel.
The Prime Minister refused to confirm the accuracy of the
leaked papers, but the amount of detail they provided, the
decision to launch a State Services Commission inquiry into
the leak and the fact that the material echoed the Cabinet
paper released last year proved their veracity.
In the end, the Government may just tinker with schedule four
by shifting small parcels of land in and out of the no-go
That would save some face on Mr Brownlee's behalf, while
getting a thin-end-of-the-wedge slight opening of the door.
Meanwhile, the Government restores some kudos for itself by
admitting it was wrong and retreating from an extreme.
In doing so, National will probably be able to bring in a
much more flexible licensing regime on other land managed by
Doc, on which mining has always been permitted, subject to
Significantly, Mr Key alluded to the wider Conservation
estate by noting the debate was not just about schedule four
land and the discussion paper was likely to reflect that.
If that is the case, the Prime Minister may come up with a
package which, while delighting no-one, also leaves no-one -
be they miner or conservationist - none too distressed,