30 Jul 2014

Fish and Game seeks PM's assurance

8:01 am on 30 July 2014

Fish and Game wants the Prime Minister John Key's assurance that the organisation's statutory role is safe backed up in writing.

The organisation has statutory authority to advocate for fresh water. Chief executive Bryce Johnson says Conservation Minister Nick Smith was hostile towards Fish and Game at a tense meeting in Wellington on 18 July, implying that he would restructure it if it didn't tone down its stance on water quality.

John Key

Prime Minister John Key. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Fish and Game and other environmental groups talked with Mr Key at the Beehive on Tuesday afternoon at one of their regularly scheduled meetings.

Mr Johnson said he was assured by Mr Key that Dr Smith would not challenge Fish and Game's statutory role, its funding or its ability to advocate for environmental issues.

But Dr Smith's answers to questions by the Green Party and Labour in Parliament on Tuesday have not reassured Fish and Game. Mr Johnson told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme he was disappointed that an assurance hadn't been given.

Mr Key moved to assure the organisation that its statutory role is safe, telling reporters: "There's absolutely no intention from the Government to change Fish and Game legislation, other than the changes that might possibly happen that Fish and Game themselves are advocating for."

Fish and Game has been advocating for freshwater quality as dairy-farming in New Zealand intensifies. Mr Key said he didn't think water quality had to be sacrificed to continue the level of dairy production.

"You can see from the cap-and-trade system that we've put in place in Taupo, the work that's been done to restore the water quality at Lake Rotoiti, as good examples of where the government programmes are working."

Threat of legal action dropped

Nick Smith has dropped his threat of legal action against Freshwater Angler Association president David Haynes. Dr Smith was considering defamation action after Mr Haynes told Radio New Zealand that the minister had threatened to restructure Fish and Game.

Housing Minister Nick Smith.

Conservation Minister Nick Smith. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

The minster said on Tuesday that, after speaking with his lawyer, he had decided to send Mr Haynes a letter saying that while he believed his comments were defamatory, he would not take any further action.

Fish and Game had said it would press for Nick Smith to resign until he gave it an assurance he would not curb its advocacy role.

Dr Smith was asked whether he would meet with the organisation again to clear the air. He said he did not think it was necessary and that events over the past week have not left him "particularly sympathetic to having another meeting".

The minister has denied that he threatened Fish and Game and released notes taken by one of his staff at the meeting. His office said he would not cut the income of Fish and Game or make any other change to prevent its campaigning over dairying.

Call for resignation 'step too far'

Two other freshwater advocacy groups, the Environmental Defence Society and Forest and Bird, oppose any such threat as Nick Smith has been accused of making, but said calling for his resignation, as Fish and Game did on Monday, was a step too far.

"I certainly don't think that Dr Smith should resign," Environmental Defence Society chairperson Gary Taylor said.

"I'd be dismayed if that happened, and I'm quite sure that the rest of the conservation movement would share my view. Dr Smith is one of the greenest ministers in the National cabinet and I hope he's there after the election."

Federated Farmers' dairy section chairman Andrew Hoggard told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme that Fish and Game should work with the industry should to improve dairy farms' environmental footprint instead of playing a blame game.

"There's a lot of farmers doing a lot of work and they probably trying to be proud of what they're doing and they're still getting hammered for this perceived 'dirty dairying'. I'd just like Fish and Game to be a little more constructive and helpful and look to work with us."