War on pests or grandstanding?

On the face of it, the Government's predator-free New Zealand policy announcement (to eradicate all rats, stoats, possums and feral cats in New Zealand by 2050) is noble.

It has been heavily hyped, billed as a "game changer'' by its developer, conservationist Sir Rob Fenwick, and by Prime Minister John Key as "the most ambitious conservation project attempted anywhere in the world''.

According to Mr Key, the project will involve collaboration between the Government, private sector, communities and scientists.

Mr Key said the Government would "lead the effort by investing an initial $28 million in a new joint venture company called Predator Free New Zealand Limited''.

Apparently, philanthropists are already "lining up'' to invest.

But is there really anything to crow about in the detail?

The idea of a predator-free New Zealand is not new, nor is a dedicated group.

Predator Free New Zealand was established by Les Kelly in 2008 as a lobby group.

He claimed the concept was "poached'' and in 2013 a Predator Free New Zealand Trust was established.

It has nine trustees including Sir Rob and economist and philanthropist Gareth Morgan, and "stakeholders'' including the Department of Conservation.

Its predator-reduction goals also happen to be "one of the most ambitious conservation projects undertaken in NZ - ambitious, but achievable''.

Last year, a group of University of Auckland scientists put the predator-free idea into the international arena, with a paper in the journal BioScience.

(It is worth noting they tagged the cost of total pest eradication at more than $9billion - and others have put it considerably higher).

The late physicist Sir Paul Callaghan's vision for a predator-free New Zealand is well known (he famously said it could be the country's "Apollo project'').

And Forest and Bird has said, given the work already being done, the country is actually on track to be predator-free by 2040.

A new plan, new group, and brave new world, then?

Or more of the same, packaged as an exciting Government-led initiative?

It is difficult not to be cynical.

Why is a government that has overseen the degradation of our waterways to the extent many are not swimmable or drinkable, and been accused of underfunding its own conservation department to the extent it cannot perform its core tasks, suddenly so committed to the environment?

Is the Government's $28 million actually an initial capital injection - or dependent on private sector investment.

(The Government has said it would match such investment by businesses, charities and local councils by half.)

The elephant in the room is 1080. Conservation Minister Maggie Barry says we can expect more to be used - and has said detractors needed to stop protesting about it.

It is clear we cannot eradicate species without serious toxic firepower - and that will upset some people.

Is the whole move a softener, the next step towards privatising Doc, which is already reliant on corporate investment?

Can and should such investment be relied on?

What bang might investors want for their buck?

Is the policy first and foremost about saving our primary industry (the Government claims there is a $3.3 billion cost to the sector each year - presumably largely from bovine tuberculosis).

Where has the Government's sudden "investment'' actually come from?

Will the total funding even come close to enough given the eradication price estimates?

Is the idea even achievable, considering the money and effort spent on small projects throughout the country, and how difficult it is to maintain predator-free status?

How much public goodwill is there to be part of the project when volunteers have been doing the hard yards for years and say they are increasingly stretched already?

Is relying on an as-yet undeveloped major scientific breakthrough as part of the plan sound policy?

Will there be buy-in from future governments?

And given our history of land-use changes and conflicting economic priorities do we even have the habitats for a revived bird population?

The questions cloud the hype.

Yet this is a feel-good pragmatic Government skilled at offering and packaging enough snippets to please its detractors.

The vision it is selling of a New Zealand alive to the sound of birdsong is one most Kiwis (the feathered and non-feathered kind) will surely buy in to.

If the ambitious plan does work (and it would be amazing if it did), let's hope the Government remembers to give credit where credit's due.

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