The cost of friendship

Last updated 05:00 06/12/2012

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OPINION: Tricky topic this, Environment Canterbury's $700,000 spend on forging a closer relationship with Ngai Tahu.

Tricky because by even speaking about it there's some hint of racism.

It might be asked, is this an issue at all?

Well yes, because it's a significant sum. At a time when ECan is cutting back in other areas.

Certainly it upset the ECan worker who first drew the matter to our attention.

"I'm not anti-Maori, but I object to sitting in a room twice a week to practise a song and to having to spend two days at a marae. But most of all I object to how much this is costing ratepayers."

And ECan was happy enough to provide the figure, which was $6000 for the marae visit for 21 staff, contributing to an overall spend of $692,000 for the financial year.

There will be plenty of people who will agree with the worker.

To give the figures some context, an ECan ratepayer in Timaru pays something like $150 a year, so it takes 4600 people to meet the bill for the closer relationship.

But here's another context.

ECan's annual budget is $140 million, so this equates to half a per cent of it. Not huge.

And it might even save money.

ECan has obligations under the Resource Management Act to consult with iwi. There are overriding principles under the Treaty of Waitangi to work with Maori. And there is the general principle of just getting along with people you regularly deal with.

In this, ECan chief executive Bill Bayfield seems proud to be developing a partnership that "is new for Canterbury and is ahead of much of the rest of New Zealand".

And certainly there are benefits. Agreeing on courses of action early can save a heap in hearings and appeal costs later.

But there's a danger too, that getting too close to one group could be to the detriment of others. ECan is charged with sustaining environmental resources while promoting economic, social and cultural wellbeing.

There's potentially a lot of conflict there, so forming strong relationships is important.

But is asking staff to learn Ngai Tahu history, some te reo and an in-house waiata a bridge too far?

Or is it simply in line with how ECan is also fostering its relationships with farmers, industries, environmentalists and other councils?

That's the real test. Or is that racist?

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- The Timaru Herald

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