Selective poll-data mining hides priority 1: environment

Claire Browning, from Forest and Bird, describes the use of poll results by mineral sector lobby group Straterra as a mine of misinformation.

"The misinformation advanced by parts of the community, however well-intended, does not help informed debate on our economic future." It's a great quote from Straterra's Chris Baker (ODT, "Miners cite poll results as support", 13.10.12).

Unfortunately, in this instance, Mr Baker himself was the one advancing the misinformation.

He also said that poll results released by Straterra this month showed "relatively poor public understanding of the reality today of minerals activities in New Zealand", and this was "call to improve public understanding of the sector" (Straterra press release, October 11, 2012).

Poll respondents, in a representative sample, were asked about concerns for our standard of living. Most (77%) were either "quite" or "very" concerned with this measure, in which environmental as well as economic wellbeing is a factor.

Respondents were also asked, "How important or unimportant do you think the development of New Zealand's natural resources (including mineral resources) is in improving New Zealand's economic prosperity and standards of living?"

Most thought it was "very" (38%), or "quite" (43%) important. A total of 59% agreed or agreed strongly with the development of these natural resources.

This would, presumably, include a temperate climate, clean water, fresh air, picturesque landscapes, and New Zealand's unique biodiversity - the foundations of an environment capable of supporting agriculture, horticulture, tourism, film, and of course, quality of life, which brings brains and dollars to our shores.

And yet, at best, the answers here are of limited use. Because nowhere was the question tested of the price respondents would pay. What price natural resource development?

Any price?

What the survey did show was that the number in favour increased if (and only if) certain preconditions were applied: if the environment were protected, or "returned to as it was"; if there were no increase in greenhouse gas emissions; if mining were by New Zealand companies and the money stayed in New Zealand; if the standard of living were to improve, and so on.

The Denniston Plateau, on the South Island's West Coast, is a current example in which none of the above is true. The ecosystems there are irreplaceable. Bathurst Resources, which hopes to strip-mine the plateau for coal, is Australian-owned. Coal affects our climate which, above all else, will challenge living standards.

An interesting aspect of the responses was the rising levels of disagreement in 2012, relative to surveys in previous years, that coal-mining "in New Zealand is undertaken in an environmentally responsible way".

This suggests New Zealanders' grasp of the reality of minerals activities is actually pretty sound, as some other recent surveys of environmental and economic priorities also show.

Pre-election 2011, voters asked to rank 21 election priorities responded that the environment was their top-ranked, with a rating of 8.2 out of 10.

More recently, according to the Department of Conservation's latest annual survey of New Zealanders' attitudes to conservation (2012), 73% think that conservation should be considered in all key decisions about New Zealand's future. As many as 77% agreed that spending money on conservation is a good investment in the prosperity and wellbeing of New Zealanders.

The World Values Survey, albeit carried out in 2004, is of value in more directly testing New Zealanders' economic and environmental priorities: 65% of respondents said economic growth was their first choice for our country's aim; 56% said a stable economy was their most important goal.

But when given a choice between the following two statements - "protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth and some loss of jobs", or "economic growth and creating jobs should be the top priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent", 65% favoured protecting the environment. A total of 69% agreed or strongly agreed that the Government should reduce environmental pollution.

That's consistent with the Straterra poll. New Zealanders love this country and want to protect it - in many cases, as a precondition of the economic development. Because without our environment, the economy on which Kiwis depend isn't possible, nor is the quality of life with which most poll respondents were concerned.

So let's dig down past the misinformation, look at what lies beneath, and decide once and for all whether an economy which puts first an extractive, finite, polluting, not particularly lucrative industry, fighting for its economic life, is how we'll choose to proceed.

• Claire Browning is a conservation advocate for conservation organisation Forest and Bird.


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