OPINION:

A funny thing happened when David Parker, Minister of Oceans and Fisheries, wanted a fast $26.6 million to put cameras on commercial fishing boats.

The funds weren’t on hand but the cameras for catch surveillance were a Labour Party election promise and dear to the heart of Minister Parker, who is both Fisheries Minister and Minister for the Environment.

And as Environment Minister, Parker happens to have a bead on some ready money: $1.245 billion to be precise, earmarked, it seems, last year for ‘Jobs for Nature’ (confusingly the moniker is also used to describe a $200m subcategory apportioned to the Department of Conservation).

So the recently announced cameras on fishing boats have been paid for, not in the ordinary budget process just past where projects compete for money and parliament and its committees scrutinise the plans before a bill is passed, but from the Jobs for Nature money, which in turn is doled out of that capacious trouser pocket marked $50b for Covid-19 Relief and Recovery Fund (CRRF).

Last week Parker (with Cabinet approval) simply reached into CRRF and paid for those all-important cameras.

“Cabinet decided that it was imperative to get cameras on boats and that reallocating the funds from within the umbrella Jobs for Nature funding was a wise use of that money,” he said.

The money “came from unallocated funds so no current or committed projects are affected,” Parker’s office clarified. As a result of the “reprioritisation” a spokesman said, “the Jobs for Nature programme changes from $1.245 billion to $1.219 billion.”

But it does appear that the change has clipped at least some nominal figures the Government announced last year.

Jobs for Nature, always a vague label for a cluster of make-work plans, and CRRF, were hatched in the early, feverish days of the Covid pandemic. Saving jobs was top of mind.

A troll through Government announcements shows that on May 14, 2020, Joint Ministers including Parker announced $433m “for new jobs in regional environmental projects”. The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) now itemises just $420m for “new jobs in regional environmental projects targetted at freshwater improvement”. Thirteen million was docked there.

In addition, Parker and fellow ministers originally announced $154m for “new jobs for enhancing biodiversity on public and private land,” and now those funds are reduced to $141m for “ecosystem restoration on public and private land” according to MfE.

So the money has come from job creation and the environment. To be clear, it makes sense to abandon much of that spending now that state-funded job creation is both unnecessary in light of strong employment and undesirable as shortages across the labour market appear to be deepening.

Indeed, it was never self-evident that the plan to splash out on environmental make-work schemes was a good use of money. The funding spans four years, which always meant the work was likely to spill into an economic recovery when it was not needed. And many of the projects – ranging from poisoning wilding conifers in areas like Mt Richmond which are spitting distance from commercial pine plantations to weeding the margins of Fiordland – are so Sisyphean in their self-sustaining and ever renewing drudgery that it is very hard to tell what real progress has been made.

So the issue is not in reducing the Jobs for Nature work. The question, rather, is shouldn’t the unallocated funds be returned to their original pot? Sure, $26.6m isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things (it’s a wee bit shy of the cost of that Ashburton bridge the Prime Minister isn’t sure she can afford). But that’s not the extent of it. In Jobs for Nature alone, MfE says, more than $400m remains unallocated.

As the Treasury puts it in tracking allocation and expenditure for CRRF, “the CRRF funding is an indication of what the Government would be comfortable spending in response to Covid-19, if necessary”.

That fund is not for all comers, it’s emergency money (all of it borrowed), specifically earmarked for responding to a public health disaster and its ongoing economic fallout.

Remember too, that’s how the Government sold the public on the need for such massive debt-fuelled spending when it unveiled CRRF in May last year (it followed a previously announced fund of $12b).

But although the announcement was made alongside Budget 2020, it never received the same scrutiny. CRRF was brought into being, not through the budget bill, but rather by legislation known as imprest supply. Meaning it is $50b of authorised spending that skips the usual ex ante scrutiny of parliament and is rife with possibility for the Government to lard in all kinds of pet projects.

This is what National’s shadow treasurer Andrew Bayly is on about in warning that the Government has run down Covid emergency funds to a contingency of just $5.1b at last tally (earlier in the year it was raided to pay $3.8b to speed new home building). That $50b, and the previous $12b, is now almost entirely spoken for.

As Bayly points out, “they [the Government] have just created this artificial Covid fund, used the Imprest Supply account, and then they dip into it at any point they want and fund any new initiatives, some related to the direct response to Covid, while some are just a whole load of projects that have got absolutely nothing to do with Covid, they just happen to be projects the Government wants to spend some money on. The whole way of budgeting and managing and giving parliamentary oversight on Budget spend has gone out the door.”

That certainly sums up cameras on commercial fishing boats. Claiming they’re needed for Covid recovery is a long bow to draw and it’s liable to shoot someone in the foot.

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