Lou Sanson, Director-General of DOC, was on TV3/Newshub this evening. He was talking about the possibility of charging for entry to certain National Parks . The angle of the report from Samantha Hayes was that New Zealand should charge more for stuff because everyone else does.
Numbers of tourists have been straining DOC’s ability to cope with managing their effects on the lands it manages, and so this has been a recurring topic in the last while. I’ve written about it in both December  and March  of 2016, and there’s been plenty of ongoing debate since.
A couple of things in this item really didn’t sit well with me.
Firstly the journalist, Samantha Hayes, cited Lou Sanson as referring to Patagonia as “our biggest competition”. I’m puzzled by this terminology and hope it’s a mis-quote. I understand how Lou Sanson is making comparisons with overseas, but as the head of DOC I find it worrying if he considers it’s DOC’s role to compete in tourism with other parts of the world.
Section 6 of the Conservation Act  defines the purpose of the Department of Conservation. Mandates include (paraphrased):
- To manage our conservation lands according to their status. For example, National Parks, Conservation Parks, any number of types of Reserves, and Stewardship Land, all have their own sets of requirements and considerations.
- To advocate for our natural and historic resources, and to promote its benefits.
- To educate people about conservation.
- To foster recreation, and encourage people to use our conservation estate for recreation.
That final mandate is the primary reason why DOC maintains its track and hut network. It’s all part of fostering recreation on conservation lands, and providing for people to get out and experience it.
There is definitely no mandate, however, to run a tourism operation. The only mention of tourism states that DOC should allow it to happen. It does happen, of course, and then DOC’s main role is to manage tourists when and where they choose to show up. DOC doesn’t have a role of trying to attract people. Hopefully Lou Sanson doesn’t see the likes of Patagonia as “competition” to DOC. If so, there’s something very wrong happening inside DOC.
The advocacy for funding methods
The second aspect of this report which I find discomforting is that the Director-General of DOC seems to be going beyond speaking about funding issues. I hope it’s just a reporter presenting things out of context, but he seems to be advocating for specific methods of resolving those funding issues.
It’s always good to have public servants available to speak candidly about issues, but I’m not convinced we’re getting a balanced and unbiased view if that apparent candidness turns into advocacy.
As the Director of DOC, Lou Sanson has a professional obligation to work within the sandbox of the funding assigned by Cabinet combined with what’s allowed within the law.
The problem I have with this is that a real funding debate shouldn’t be happening inside DOC’s sandbox. It should be a debate which includes the political level, because it is political.
I value the insight which DOC staff and Lou Sanson have. I’m increasingly wary, however, of seeing statements come from DOC, and notably its Director-General, which seem to be advocating funding methods, because its nature as a public agency means that DOC cannot and should not get political.
DOC’s funding debate needs to consider more than merely what DOC’s allowed to do for raising money within its own sandbox. It needs to consider the relationship between DOC’s return for its funding, and that of a $26 million flag referendum. It needs to weigh the acceptability of DOC’s public funding against the acceptability of changes to tax rates, debt levels, and (for example) the $1.2 billion spent each year on keeping people in jail.
For as long as he’s a public servant, though, we’ll never hear Lou Sanson talking about any of this. He’s never going to be out there saying New Zealand should raise income taxes so DOC can have more money. This is good, for hopefully obvious reasons. Public servants are meant to maintain a semblance of neutrality around public policy…
…and this is also where I’m having trouble with him apparently advocating that DOC should possibly be charging more for use of its facilities. I don’t think we should be hearing him say that, either. Why is it supposedly okay for Lou Sanson to advocate this if it’s not okay for him to say NZ should build fewer low-value roads so that money can instead be spent on conservation goals?
Political stuff is what Ministers are for. If there’s an intent to pursue one funding source over another, it should be Maggie Barry getting up and arguing about it at a political level, as the Minister of Conservation, and then we can all argue back and point out the range of options that the entire government has at its disposal which go much wider than DOC’s sandbox.
With respect to him, because I still think he’s one of the best CEO’s DOC’s ever had despite trying circumstances, I think Lou Sanson needs to be very cautious about what he says on this, and how it gets presented in media.