Game for a major review

A recent poll showed more than 76% of New Zealanders are worried about water quality. PHOTO:...
Photo: ODT files.
Much water will flow down the rivers before the dramatic changes to Fish & Game recommended in a ministerial review are fully implemented.

It is understandable some feathers will be ruffled at the new direction.

However, there has been increasing concern about the way the 30-year-old organisation is working, or rather not working, and the review sought by previous conservation minister Eugenie Sage, published last week, said its operations had been plagued by major governance issues.

The organisation operates a federal structure with 12 regional Fish & Game Councils (FGC) and a National Council.

As the review says, the legislation intended regional bodies would be responsible for the day-to-day management of the habitat and species of their area, while the national body would be concerned with the national interest of anglers and hunters. This may have been ‘‘a neat demarcation in theory’’, but in reality, the respective roles of the regional and national bodies involved debate and disagreement from the outset.

Under the changes, the 12 FGCs will be cut to three for each island. Southland and Otago will become one council area.

The report points out Fish & Game with about 70 staff and a turnover of $11million has ‘‘an extraordinary and unnecessary level of governance’’ — 144 councillors (regionally and nationally), a total higher than the number of members of Parliament.

The review recommends slashing the number of councillors on each FGC from 12 to eight, with half of those appointed by the Minister for Conservation, rather than elected by licence holders.

The lack of diversity in the existing councils, including only three women members and poor representation by Maori and young people, was also noted. South Island FGCs each had a Ngai Tahu appointee and were ‘‘overall more used to recognising a Maori viewpoint (although the question of how much is understood or incorporated, might be answered differently by the Ngai Tahu representatives compared to the other councillors)’’.

Major changes are proposed to recognise the interests of Maori as a Treaty partner, including amending legislation, and urgently initiating a dialogue with Maori through a national hui to develop a policy to ensure all relevant Treaty concerns are addressed.

The review said the boundaries between governance and management were poorly understood, ‘‘or if understood are honoured more in the breach than the observance’’.

Issues included FGC councillors intruding into operational matters and, nationally, there were disagreements between the council and the chief executive over their respective roles.

Poor management of conflicts of interest was also cited in the report.

The voluntary status of the existing councillors was seen as being one of the issues affecting poor governance practice, but we question whether the proposal to pay future government appointees but not the elected members is wise. Other bodies that have both elected and appointed members, such as district health boards, do not make this distinction over remuneration.

The review is clear that much public good has been done by Fish & Game, particularly in environmental protection. Reviewers said it had a crucial role defending waterways and water quality in Environment Court processes, something which it ‘‘arguably’’ should receive more support for from other organisations.

Despite the concerns around parochialism impacting the national council, the reviewers emphasise the importance of Fish & Game’s regional presence, describing it as its most valuable characteristic and the lynchpin of its effectiveness.

‘‘There is no substitute for on-the-ground familiarity with local habitats and species; their health and challenges; the relationship at a local level with licence holders and wider stakeholders.’’

We hope that will not be lost sight of in the transition to the new arrangements and that the changes, which should mean a reduction in administration costs, will allow for an increased number of field staff rather than a reduction.

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