I’ve got a lot of time for John Campbell.
He might take an extraoooordinary time to produce some of his remaaaarkable questions in that rich, oh-so mellifluous tone, but he does inject a large dose of journalistic passion into Breakfast television and ensure my porridge, coffee and toast go down with a healthy serving of news.
On Tuesday, his fires had been stoked by New Zealand’s southernmost territory, Campbell Island/Moutere Ihupuku – a pristine, subantarctic Unesco World Heritage site which is home to breeding grounds for albatross, New Zealand sea lions and southern elephant seals. A speck in the Southern Ocean 660km away from the South Island. You’ve heard of the inhospitable roaring forties… well this tiny ecological gem cowers even further south, in the “furious fifties”.
The reason for this island’s 15 minutes of early morning TV fame was a series of Official Information Act-sourced documents that had revealed exactly why our Government had flown in the face of years-worth of research and recommendations from the Department of Conservation, legislative policy and an independent report, and failed to create a 2900km2 marine reserve there.
To be straight, just over a third of that area around this vital habitat for so many taonga species is already covered by the Campbell Island/Moutere Ihupuku Marine Reserve – what was under debate was the remaining 61 percent of the territorial waters. And there was near-unanimous agreement that the expansion should go ahead.
Unfortunately, however, those OIA documents showed the plans were stymied by commercial fishing interests – more specifically a potential deepwater crab fishery. Even though (and this is the particularly galling aspect of what the documents show) a joint briefing to the ministers of conservation and fisheries dated 28 November 2019 revealed “it is unlikely that the Additional Area alone could sustain a commercial and biologically viable target fishery” and the only two fishing surveys available to those commercial fishing interests “described the crab fishery in the area surveyed as ‘poor’ and negligible’”.
That money should speak so loudly against policy, fact and expert advice is appalling. But not, unfortunately, surprising.
Perhaps the only saving grace about this whole sorry affair is that there are people who care (in the case of Campbell Island/Moutere Ihupuku it’s been Stuff.co.nz’s Andrea Vance and Stanford University’s Bronwen Golder, who is also director of Global Ocean Legacy’s Kermadec campaign) and who are keeping a close eye on not just what decisions are made, but how they are reached.
Every decision and policy will have interested parties – but it seems the weight they exert over balanced determinations are often tied to how many dollar signs they carry with them. In these cases, verdicts can seem strange or, at worst, unnatural.
Even in a newspaper such as Gulf News, hidden interests can seem to tread mucky footprints across almost every page. Decisions that affect our everyday lives on Waiheke appear as done deals and, although the reasons for those decisions may not be nefarious or villainous, those that impact most heavily on them often lurk between the lines.
Again, no one is imputing underhand tactics here. We’re just – as with those OIAs for the Campbell Island/Moutere Ihupuku Marine Reserve – asking for transparency as to who or what is pulling the strings.
Over the next few weeks, for example, we’re likely to find out why the Auckland District Licensing Committee thought it fine to convert Surfdale’s grocery store into a bottle shop even though Auckland Council’s licensing inspector, the local board and a significant number of residents opposed it. In her appeal, licensing inspector Ritchelle Roycroft goes so far as to say the committee “erred as a matter of law” and “committed clear error” and “was plainly wrong” in their decision-making process. Why?
Equally, local board member Paul Walden raises an interesting question over why only one applicant to take over the lease of the Old Surfdale Post Office made it out of a behind-closed-doors workshop and on to the agenda. That decision has now been deferred after the meeting heard other applicants still wanted to be in the running.
And then, possibly most importantly, we come to the Waiheke Area Plan – a strategic document awash with overt and covert interests as it attempts to forge a path through the next 30 years. This week we start to wade through the interests to this colossal proposal as a way to reveal the who, what and why of some of its policies.
And, sure, the ins and outs of Waiheke’s housing density, roading, transport – even the dreaded potential of reticulation – might not be the sort of news that fights its way onto John Campbell’s Breakfast script. But in terms of finding a way for so many disparate groups to exist cheek by jowl on this tiny island, we all have a vested interest.
• James Belfield