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The Politics Of Exclusion: There Is A Better Way

Sandra Lee’s latest decision involving the beleaguered West Coast has once again raised doubts about New Zealand’s political process. The great majority of us do not know all the facts relating to the mining proposal by Macraes. We trust (or hope to trust) in the process that will consider all the facts necessary to enable a sound decision to be made. However, Sandra Lee herself stated that she was not required to consider either social or economic consequences when making her decision. That is an acknowledgement that she did not consider all the facts; par for the course of New Zealand’s exclusive politics of recent decades.

Narrow consideration is the bane of policy making. Without knowing the social and economic context surrounding the case Ms Lee cannot claim to have made a good decision. Worse, her environmental analysis is flawed without an understanding of the interrelationships that exist between environment and society. We have seen myopia in action with the narrowness of our economic ‘reforms’, which also excluded society. Now, it appears, we want to repeat the model of ignorance in decision making on the environmental front.

Much of our legislation and politicking is set up as a game where the winner takes all. Worse, where the most powerful player doesn’t look like winning, they use their influence to change the rules. This happened in the case of Timberlands and the world-renowned West Coast Accord. MMP was an attempt to control such political excesses, but seems, rather depressingly for one who voted for it, to have encouraged singular and exclusive interest groups who only sing one song.

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We have two options in combating the prevalence of ad hoc and badly thought out decisions: we can either continue to express a point of view on a case by case basis, which sometimes seems as hopeless as arguing against puritans; or we can attempt to build a credible, honourable and socially inclusive process into our decision making. Many of us have tried the former. Indiscriminate privatisation continued, as did electricity reforms, the profit motive in health, education and research, and the rest. Over the last two decades we have seen damaging ideological decisions follow even more damaging abuses of power and privilege. The most evident powers have been the interests of the elites of finance and preservation – both exclusive of community and each other, and interested only in their own narrow ends. We will keep on facing the tides of poor policy decisions until we take the time to critically review the way we make and implement policy in this country. We badly need a more credible, honourable and socially inclusive process in our decision-making.

The poor decisions on the ascendancy at present relate to the environment (at least until the puritans from Treasury return). From an environmental perspective, the Act that is most inclusive and balanced, at least in spirit, is the Resource Management Act (RMA). Its objective is to promote sustainable management, enabling people and communities to provide for their social, economic and cultural well being WHILE safeguarding and sustaining the environment. Implicit in this Act is the view that we can have a win-win outcome; that both the environment AND community can gain; that we need not necessarily choose between the environment OR the community, between forests or furniture.

The implementation of the Act has not been without its problems, stemming mainly from partisan and confrontational ideas that only see the possibility of a single winner. There are two dominant views, which have sometimes been so strong that there is little room for the middle ground. At one end of the field stand the elite phalanxes of preservationists, advocating the win-lose ideals of John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club, and an advocate of the removal of the Native Americans from Yosemite and Yellowstone). At the other end stand the elite phalanxes of utilitarian commerce advocating the win-lose ideals of Milton Friedman, where people are assumed to settle on the scrap heap through their own choices.

For their obvious differences, each phalanx has much in common. They apply a simplistic and axiomatic approach to two of the most complex systems we have – ecosystems and society (the human-exclusive, equilibrium ecology of Bambi for the one, and the equilibrium economy of equally powerless, socially-independent ‘rational economic men’ for the other). These axioms are not only unquestionable within these elites, but often quite wrong. They have a willingness to exclude – any extractive commerce on the one hand, any environmental considerations on the other – and community interests in both cases.

Their most important point of common interest is their essential segregation of the environment from the world in which the economy operates. This is manifested in either people who daily marinate themselves in a petrochemical economy, while judging as feral and inbred those who have a more direct contact with blood, sawdust and soil – or economists who say “we will get the environment right after we get the economy right.”

The spirit of the RMA attempts to integrate these environmental and economic (as well as social) concerns, and is the target of dissent where the regional application of the Act does not favour their extreme, or where one or other phalanx has scored a coupe. Nevertheless, with notable exceptions, the RMA has the tools to ensure common sense outcomes. It stands out as a beacon to inclusion and breadth of mind.

The same could not be said for other legislation and political processes. The Conservation Act is very much a child of the single objective and segregationist beliefs of both Treasury and the preservation interests. When the administration of our public lands was radically changed in 1987, land was segregated into those ‘conservation’ areas where commerce was all but excluded, and ‘commercial’ areas where single objectives of finance held sway. From 1987 the administrators of the conservation land no longer needed to consider either the local community (other than those that lay dead in archaeological sites), the local economy, or any other broad criteria involving aspects of the national good. On the other hand, the ex-state land designated commercial was encouraged to run along the lines that ‘anything good for General Motors is good for the country’.

The greatest tragedy in this set-up was the assumption that such a singular emphasis would lead to more ‘efficient’ and desirable outcomes. They ignored the history of too singular a focus manifesting itself in the opposite outcome to that intended.

Generally, the economic and ecological outcomes from the rush to segregate and simplify have not been a success. Though the phalanxes have thinned, there are still those who deny the failures, and argue for ever-more preservation, or more economic ‘reforms’ – like die-hard Soviet economists lamenting a ‘pure’ communism.

Our environment is still in decline even though the land under forest is increasing. With the growing acknowledgement of this fact has come increasing calls to look at alternative approaches that are based on an ecological reality, rather than a Bambi mythology that suggests the death of an individual plant or animal is somehow not part of nature’s design. Such approaches are more and more inclusive of community, recognising both the positive and the often-necessary role of people living within, and living from, the land, and that social equity and environmental outcomes cannot be easily segregated.

The rise of landscape ecology underpins this change. From this perspective it is no longer tenable to assume that individual parcels of land are isolated from neighbouring parcels – either ecologically, socially or economically.

The economic parallels are obvious. Treasury and their martinets seemed to delight in segregating and marginalising sections of society and public administration, secure in their beliefs in a win-lose world that operates like some simple machine.

There is a better way to manage our environment and our economy than one that marginalises and segregates, but it must start with an acceptance that the environment is not ‘out there’, but very much integral to who we are and what we do. The acceptance of a broader, more socially-inclusive and environmentally-integrative approach is required by the economists. A promising recent sign is that someone in Treasury has finally read Robert Putnam, given their recent acknowledgement that a strong society is vital to a strong economy.

A similar move to acknowledge a social context is necessary from the preservationists. Analogous to the unintended consequences of economic policy, the exclusion and social discrimination can lead to worse environmental outcomes. It behoves those that have a real commitment to the environment to close their minds neither to what are the actual environmental problems we face, nor to those socially inclusive options that could provide a positive win-win future.

A necessary start to such a process is a review of the Conservation Act and other legislation to make it more inclusive of the local community, but more important even than that is a review of political processes that allow a winner-take-all outcome, where consensus accords can be annulled at little more than the stroke of a pen.

I have no doubt that there was the opportunity for the environment, the society, the local economy and Macraes themselves to all be winners given some thought to the mining proposal’s design. I have also no doubt that under the current political process, with the current pandering to myth and special interest, that even if Macraes had proposed better than world-class environmental practices, and a pest control programme for the whole of the Buller area – where the real problems exist – there would still have been preservationist voices chanting their socially-exclusive refrain, “No”.

That people will still want to exclude options for their own elitist interests and myths is one thing. For our legislation and political processes to encourage and even advocate on behalf of such singular views is embarrassing. It is enough to make you wish for a constitution and an upper house.


Chris Perley is a forest and natural resource consultant with qualifications in forestry science, agricultural science and philosophy, and a particular interest in environment philosophy and policy. He has no interest in any mining operation. This article was not commissioned by any individual or institution.

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