THOMAS CRANMER: Department of Conservation hit by funding crisis

Alarm bells have been rung by the department after its Deputy Director-General for Operations warns, ‘the initial view shows that we do not have sufficient funding to cover our basic running costs’.

  •  Thomas Cranmer writes –

Following last week’s budget, alarm bells have been rung by the Department of Conservation. Just after 5pm on Wednesday, Deputy Director-General for Operations, Mike Tully, sent an email to senior staff advising them of discussions that took place on Monday with the senior leadership team relating to the 2023/24 financial baseline information for the department.

In the leaked email Tully stated, “In summary, it did not paint the desired picture we might have hoped for. To be transparent, the initial view shows that we do not have sufficient funding to cover our basic running costs.”

“There is now a lot of urgent work underway to seek clarity on our position,” he wrote.

The immediate effect, as set out in the email, is the introduction of a hiring freeze and a review by Deputy Director-Generals in the department to identify, “how fixed operating cost commitments fit within available funding before budget envelopes are confirmed”.

The department is known to have been chronically underfunded for years but it has now reached crisis point as the government has required DoC to deliver on an increasing number of core programmes and take responsibility for the maintenance of a third of New Zealand’s total land, whilst not matching the annual increases in wages and inflation.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Minister of Conservation, Willow-Jean Prime are understood to have been aware of the situation before the Budget was finalised but would not support any substantial cost pressure funding, instead telling the department to find savings from the baseline.

Some within the department are also critical of the Chief Executive, Penny Nelson, for not addressing the impending crisis sooner – for instance, by managing a gradual reduction in staffing levels over the last two years through natural attrition and reduced hiring. As it stands, there is now an expectation within the department of significant job cuts over the next few months, although this was disputed by a spokesperson for the department this morning.

Jobs for Nature is unaffected by this current squeeze as its funding is ring-fenced. The controversial programme is described by the government as a $1.2 billion programme that manages funding across multiple government agencies, including the Department of Conservation, to benefit the environment, people and the regions. It is part of the Covid-19 recovery package. The programme was created in 2020 and is intended to run for four years.

However, in August 2021, ACT conservation spokeswoman Nicole McKee, described the programme as ridiculous. Budget documents showed a Jobs for Nature programme to carry out pest control of wallabies was costing $685,000 per person employed.

“ACT values the work that hunters and trappers are doing for conservation in New Zealand but the way these programmes are set up are expensive failures.

“At a time when debt has ballooned Labour is happy to throw around taxpayers’ money without a care for the value it gets, or the impact on future generations.

“It’s time to give up on these expensive programmes and start spending taxpayers’ money more responsibly,” McKee told Stuff.

It is understood from sources within the department that, in the context of the current funding crisis, Ministers have refused to approve the reallocation of Jobs for Nature funding to core conservation work. A spokesperson for the department denied that any such request had been made.

It has led to the perception amongst some within the department that the government is hostile towards it. And one doesn’t need to look far for evidence that lends some support to that sentiment.

In a NZ Herald article in February, Audrey Young wrote,

“Māori hate the Department of Conservation, MPs on the Māori affairs select committee were told this morning by former Conservation Minister Poto Williams.”

She said that was what she had been told by Māori Crown Relations Minister Kelvin Davis last year when she was first appointed minister in charge of the Department of Conservation.

“One of the first things that Minister Davis said to me was that Māori hate DoC,” she told the committee.

“ ‘They have a really poor relationship with the department so good luck to you sister’,” he had said.

Davis explained that he had been asking Māori what their concerns were in their relationship with the Crown.

“And if DoC wasn’t mentioned as the first problem, they were the second,” Davis said. “People would say they had no trust in DoC, they think they own all our land. That was the context.”

In response to questions, a spokesperson for the Department of Conservation provided the following statement:

As part of the normal business planning process an initial summary of the 2023-2024 budget was presented to the senior leadership team.  DOC business groups are now reviewing the details to identify fixed costs, vacancies, core priorities and any efficiencies across teams. 

This is an operational issue. We are not in contact with Ministers on business planning details.

As part of continuing to improve its financial performance and manage cost pressures, DOC is also undertaking a review of its baseline funding and future capability this year.

The review will build on the insights from Natural Resources Cluster spending review and include further analysis to understand DOC’s increasingly complex role, intersections with wider Government priorities, demand drivers from Treaty obligations and environmental pressures, and the level of investment needed to address operational performance and sustainability issues.

This work will allow the government to make strategic decisions about which investments are critically needed in the conservation system.

While in recent years there has been investment in conservation – specifically to implement New Zealand’s biodiversity strategy Te Mana o Te Taiao, or by providing time-limited funding to support the COVID-19 recovery (e.g. through the Jobs for Nature initiative) – these recent uplifts are ring-fenced for specific new initiatives or to address specific cost pressures.

At the same time, there has been a decrease in concessions and recreation revenues (caused by COVID-19) and increases in the costs and complexity of DOC’s work. In addition, DOC has had to manage the impacts of unforeseen and unfunded costs on the baseline.

Climate change is also making DOC’s role harder. The amount spent on track and hut repairs in the past five years has quadrupled because of more frequent severe weather events.

As a steward of taxpayers’ funds, DOC is required like all other government agencies to focus on delivering the highest value for money possible and manage within the available funding. This means that there is a continued requirement to look for efficiencies or prioritise within the baseline where possible.

Minister Prime’s office was also contacted for comment yesterday afternoon but is yet to respond.


Thomas Cranmer is the nom de plume of a lawyer with over 25 years experience in some of the world’s biggest law firms, who writes on Cranmer’s Substack exploring issues facing NZ.  This article was first posted on that site (HERE).

One thought on “THOMAS CRANMER: Department of Conservation hit by funding crisis

  1. Under-fund DoC, then dismantle it in present form as it cannot do the job it is supposed to do, then reconstitute it under Iwi. That’s how our underhand, deceitful “labour” government works, eh ?

    Liked by 1 person

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