Conservation Minister admits Government 'yet to reach agreement' on major mining promise

The Conservation Minister has admitted the Government is yet to reach an agreement over the delivery of a major post-election promise.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's announcement in November 2017 that the Government would ban new mines on conservation land was widely applauded with Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage saying at the time that mining destroyed the habitats of plants and wildlife at risk of extinction.

However, over the last two years, the public has been told little about how the policy is developing. A discussion document on the ban was scheduled for release in September 2018, but never turned up. Last June, Newshub was told by Sage that the document would be released by October 2019 depending on Cabinet approval. Again, nothing happened.

Sage previously said delays were the result of wanting to get the document's "information and options right", but has now told Newshub: "There are three parties in Government and we've yet to reach agreement on the release of a discussion document. One of the issues is how stewardship land, which is public conservation land, is treated."

Earlier this week, Labour's Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor was reported as saying the policy had been parked before the September 19 general election. In response to questions from Newshub, he said Sage was "still working on the issue".

"Obviously anything this government does requires all three parties to agree and I understand discussions are ongoing on the matter," O'Connor said.

Sage, a Green Party MP, says she is still trying to get the discussion document out this term, while National's Conservation spokesperson Jacqui Dean says the policy is in disarray.

"Members of the Labour, the Greens and NZ First are simply not on the same page. Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage has been steadfast in her support for the policy, but she's being undercut by her colleagues and now no one knows what is going on."

Damien O'Connor.
Damien O'Connor. Photo credit: Newshub.

Delays to the policy's implementation have also consistently angered activists who see the lack of progress as a betrayal.

"This is a complete failure on the part of our Government. It is really an own goal - they made the commitment, they failed to deliver," said Coromandel Watchdog spokesperson Augusta Macassey-Pickard.

"They have a duty to manage our conservation estate for future generations, and they have failed… We are angry and we really question the integrity of this Government."

Macassey-Pickard previously told Newshub that it was frustrating that just a discussion document was being released when Ardern's promise had been so equivocal.

As Sage alluded to, whether stewardship land - which makes up about 30 percent of the land administered by the Department of Conservation - should be reclassified, is hotly debated.

While DoC says it is vital to species' protection and local ecosystems, some suggest its value is limited and it could be used for private purposes.

Many of those opposed to barring extractive industries on conservation land are constituents of O'Connor's on the West Coast. Around 4000 West Coasters protested in November against what they say are Government policies which stifle business growth.

Ensuring regions like the West Coast continue to thrive has, however, been a core focus for Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones.

He is a big supporter of mining, particularly in the South Island, due to the jobs the industry creates and the flow-on effect of employment.

Most mining activity occurs off conservation land, but as of November 2018, of the 8.68 million hectares of public conservation land in New Zealand, there were 17481 hectares of the land covered by exploration and mining permits