28 Jul 2014

Minister should resign, says Fish and Game

10:03 pm on 28 July 2014

The Fish and Game Council wants Conservation Minister Nick Smith to resign, accusing him of threatening its future if it continues to question irrigation projects and intensive farming.

The council is an independent body with statutory authority to protect rivers, lakes and streams and the sole agency for issuing hunting and fishing licences.

Dr Nick Smith.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith. Photo: RNZ

Nick Smith has rejected accusations that he told Fish and Game members at a tense meeting on 18 July in Wellington to essentially pull back on campaigning or risk the council being stripped of its statutory powers.

But notes obtained by Radio New Zealand News from the meeting where Dr Smith is accused of making the comments quote him saying its "perks of being a statutory body could go" if it continues to behave like a "rabid NGO."

"I'm a fan of Fish and Game" however the legislation "requires a tweak," the notes say.

The notes say Dr Smith referred to billboards erected by Fish and Game in Canterbury asking: "Irrigation - how much is too much?" as a "problem politically." The notes say Dr Smith told council members "not to be noisy" and "when you cause trouble you burn goodwill."

Five people who attended the 18 July meeting have told Radio New Zealand News that Dr Smith gave councillors a dressing down for their stance on trying to protect water quality in lakes and rivers.

Fish and Game chairperson Lindsay Lyons told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme on Monday that Nick Smith should resign because his behaviour at the meeting was unbecoming of a minister.

He said 12 council members plus others at the meeting heard Dr Smith. "When the minister left we looked at each other and said wow."

On Monday, Dr Smith denied that he threatened Fish and Game with restructuring because of its advocacy for fresh water and released notes taken by one of his staff at the meeting.

"Big issue - F & G need to work out what they want to be: a statutory body - legislation and a relationship with Government or an NGO?? Statutory monopoly!!," the notes say.

Read Nick Smith's notes (PDF file)

Fish and Game chief executive Bryce Johnson says Dr Smith was hostile towards the organisation at the Wellington meeting and implied that he would restructure the council if it did not tone down its stance on water quality in the comment about tweaking. He said council members were "shocked" and "disgusted" at his attack on its statutory role.

But Dr Smith said on Monday that he was talking about allowing people to buy fishing licences online. "I do want to make amendments to the Fish and Game licence scheme so that, for instance, there can be internet sales. That is totally out of context of any debate about water quality. It's actually about protecting and improving our Fish and Game system," he said.

Initially, it was reported that Fish and Game billboard campaign in Canterbury angered Conservation Minister Nick Smith.

Initially, it was reported that Fish and Game billboard campaign in Canterbury angered Conservation Minister Nick Smith. Photo: SUPPLIED

Public entity

Fish and Game is a public entity set up under the Conservation Act and overseen by the minister, but is by law independent of the Government of the day and is instead answerable to Parliament. Its statutory role is to advocate to maintain and enhance the quality of lakes and rivers.

That has brought it into conflict with the National Party's economic growth agenda to subsidise massive irrigation dams to intensify agriculture and boost the economy. Scientists agree that intensive agriculture is polluting our lakes and rivers at an increasing rate, and that more intensive agriculture will only create more polluted waterways.

Water issues

Fish and Game has taken a lead role in advocating for water quality over issues such as the Ruataniwha Dam in Hawke's Bay and put up billboards throughout Canterbury over irrigation.

Association of Freshwater Anglers president David Haynes said there was no doubt this activity has angered the Conservation Minister, and at the 18 July meeting said Nick Smith made it clear he wanted Fish and Game to shut up, stop carrying out its statutory function to advocate for clean rivers, and do as it was told.

Mr Haynes said the minister indicated he wanted to "tweak" Fish and Game because its advocacy for clean rivers was standing in the way of economic growth.

"Very clearly they were being castigated and that the idea of this tweaking was a threat - a threat to pull your neck in. I was also surprised to hear him say 'Fish and Game sometimes behaves like a rabid NGO, worse than Forest and Bird' - which is very insulting."

Dr Smith has said he is thinking of taking legal action against Mr Haynes over his comments about the meeting, but Prime Minister John Key said on Monday that would be a step too far. Mr Key said he has not discussed Dr Smith's threat of legal action with the minister.

Last year, Dr Smith was accused of politically interfering with a Department of Conservation submission on the Ruataniwha Dam on water quality issues, which was gutted from 30 pages to two paragraphs. The minister vigourously denied this.

Two powerful lobby groups opposed to Fish and Game's lobbying on behalf of water quality, Irrigation New Zealand and Federated Farmers, have called on the Government to remove compulsory licenses for trout fishing and hunting, which would effectively be the end of Fish and Game.

Political reaction

Political opposition is mounting against any moves to change Fish and Game's mandate.

United Future leader Peter Dunne said it was important that the organisation's voice was heard because it had an important advocacy function.

"I want to make it clear that United Future opposes any moves to tweak, limit or restrict the advocacy powers of Fish and Game."

Labour's conservation spokesperson Ruth Dyson said on Monday that the Conservation Minister is being intimidating and clearly trying to bully Fish and Game into abandoning its advocacy role.

"Nick Smith has a bit of a reputation for closing down voices that speak against things that he's trying to promote. But when he does that to an independent organisation like Fish and Game, whose mandate is to promote the quality of our freshwater, he's really overstepped the mark."

Green Party conservation spokesperson Eugenie Sage said she did not trust any moves by Dr Smith to tweak the legislation. Suppressing advocacy for water quality showed the Government's agenda was more pollution, rather than rivers clean enough to swim in, she said.