Small on predator-free NZ

Vernon Small writes:

National has prepared a tasty meal for the Opposition by adopting its goal of a predator-free New Zealand by 2050.

Ever since the late, lamented and saintly scientist Sir Paul Callaghan set the challenge – and argued it was feasible – it has been waiting for a political party to pick it up. He was supported three years ago by a group of 18 scientists who met at a Ruapehu lodge to nut out its practicality and decided it was technically possible.

A few years ago it was not possible, but it now is.

It has become the holy grail for a network of conservation groups, who see it as the equivalent of the nuclear-free policy in terms of a source of national pride.

In his last speech before he died, Callaghan said it was like the Apollo Moon mission.  “It’s crazy, it’s ambitious but I think it might be worth a shot.”

That the two main Opposition parties – in their own natural hinterland – left a policy like this for National to seize, and brand as its own, is a major lapse.

Indeed, and it isn’t new. I recall hearing about it from someone in National a couple of years and getting very excited at the ambition behind it.

The response has been to deride the policy as an empty stunt, lacking the required funding and based on as-yet-uninvented pest-eradication measures. All true to a point but just a spoonful of sugar to help the expired rat slip down. It doesn’t change the fact National has scored a major PR coup.

It is akin to a Green version of the 2015 Budget move to lift benefits. It was limited to those with children and the full $25 was not available to all. But as a headline “National increases base benefits” was as effective a theft from the Opposition’s playbook as you could wish for.

(NZ First can be excluded from being on the same page, or even the same planet. The reaction of its spokesman, Richard Prosser,  included the assertion that “our birds and lizards have co-existed alongside ferrets and stoats for more than 130 years, cats for 200 years, and rats for more than 800 years, yet we still have birds and lizards”. If that’s NZ First’s view of co-existence then parties planning any sort of coalition arrangement have been warned.)

Only NZ First could consider stoats and rats etc killing 25 million birds a year as “co-existence”. It’s co-existence of the kind that Hutus and Tutsis had in Rwanda.

At the same time the projected national cost has come down sharply since 2013, when the $25b figure was all the rage, to a still huge $7b-$9b. 

The Government argues the costs are continuing to fall, as new and better techniques are developed to kill the pests. 

Still, any forecast cost is a quantum leap from the “initial” $28m over four years provided to – or even the extra $56m expected from the private sector.

Even adding in $26m for the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge over five years, about $80m for DOC’s pest control and $70m over four years to eradicate bovine TB carried by possums and ferrets, the numbers still lack a few zeros.

So will there need to be more Government cash?

Ministers’ official response is “maybe”. The honest answer is “yes, quite a lot” if it wants to show significant progress even towards its 2025 interim goals – which only double to two million the area of DOC land where predators are suppressed.

I agree the government funding will have to ramp up – could well exceed $100 million a year. But as surpluses get bigger there will be more room to do this.

The claimed long-term economic benefits would be huge for farming. The cost of pests is put at $3.3b a year now. 

And for tourism it would be priceless. A country bigger than Britain without a rat, possum, feral cat or mustelid in sight would be a fantastic drawcard. A policy so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it Steven Joyce.

Yep the economic and tourism benefits are potentially immense.

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