*This article was first published August 21, 2018*

The Conservation Minister refuses to comment on the fact advice she received was doctored, allegedly to “cover up” her department’s failures in the Mackenzie Basin. David Williams reports.

Forest & Bird says the Conservation Minister has been misled by her own department, after a manager doctored scientific advice she requested on the Mackenzie Basin.

In January, Eugenie Sage asked for a Department of Conservation (DOC) briefing on biodiversity values in the Mackenzie. She specifically wanted it to come from Christchurch ecologist Nick Head, one of the country’s foremost experts on the Mackenzie.

Head, who left the department in June and is pursuing a personal grievance claim, provided the two-page briefing to his bosses on January 24. But emails released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show that DOC’s principal Mackenzie adviser, Jeremy Severinsen, deleted several key passages before it was sent to the Minister’s office.

It’s clear from the DOC emails that those passages related to Crown lease properties in the Mackenzie going through tenure review, their ecological values, and how they might help form a drylands park.

Asked why the passages were deleted, Severinsen says: “The content formed a part of a larger piece of work under consideration by the department and it was not appropriate to include that subset of information until the other task was completed.”

It’s unclear if Sage has ever seen the deleted advice.

“It’s alarming that the Minister cannot rely on DOC advice and something needs to be done to rectify the situation.” – Jen Miller

Forest & Bird’s group manager of conservation advocacy Jen Miller, of Christchurch, says removing key passages without consultation is contrary to department expectations about ministerial advice.

“In this case, the key omissions appear to be made to ‘cover up’ the fact that previous DOC/LINZ decisions on tenure review and discretionary consents had compromised the possible drylands park and resulted in a loss of ecological values.”

Miller adds: “It’s alarming that the Minister cannot rely on DOC advice and something needs to be done to rectify the situation.”

Head says there was a consistent pattern of similar information – “everything that makes tenure review looks bad” – being removed from other briefings and other papers. Why? “Because they’re worried tenure review is under the spotlight for not performing. Why else would you be hiding that fact?”

Sage, who is aware of the issue, refused to comment on our story.

Tenure review, a controversial process which splits pastoral leases into conservation and freehold land, has led to large areas of former Crown lease land being onsold for windfall profits. LINZ has been criticised for freeholding land with rare and threatened ecological values. It has also approved farm developments, against DOC advice, on Crown lease land, through what are called discretionary consents.

Severinsen has been involved with tenure review since 2012, while working for DOC and Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), the agency responsible for managing Crown pastoral lease land.

Labour previously promised to scrap tenure review. The Green Party’s Sage, however, has resisted calls for a moratorium.

Since being sworn in, Sage has been critical of poor tenure review decisions and the approval of some discretionary consents. On the prospect of a Drylands Park, Sage told Newsroom last year: “I want to see that park established.” In May’s budget, the Mackenzie received $2.6 million “to fund better protection of the unique landscapes and biodiversity of the Mackenzie Basin”

Valued advice

Sage’s January request was for advice “from Nick Head please”. An email said. “She values his advice.”

It was two days after his briefing was sent to the Minister’s office that Head noticed Severinsen’s redactions, made within two hours of receiving Head’s email and without his approval.

Head was livid. He emailed several managers: “That others removed important points from my briefing without any contact with me should be of considerable concern on a number of levels. But from a personal level, it puts at risk my professional reputation in terms of providing open, full, and very relevant advice, that we are absolutely required to do.”

Wellington-based DOC government services adviser Andrew Bichan replied that the deleted material could be easily provided to the Minister’s office “to complete the Minister’s picture of the matter”. Bichan said government services often suggested changes to briefings, as long as the accountable person approved them. He suggested Head’s boss, terrestrial ecosystems manager James Holborow, talk to Severinsen.

Holborow wrote to Severinsen the following week. “The Minister did ask for a briefing from Nick because she valued his perspective per se. Andrew [Bichan] notes the factual aspects of the material that was taken out.”

It’s not clear what Holborow said to Severinsen about the deletions, but Holborow and Head later agreed to help with a separate briefing on the ecological values on tenure review properties. That would “enable the minister to have a picture of biodiversity values on specific properties”, Holborow said.

Opaque response

Severinsen met the minister in Wellington to discuss the Mackenzie on January 31. It’s unclear if he discussed the removed paragraphs.

Newsroom asked Severinsen whether the deleted advice was eventually provided to the minister’s office, but his response is unclear. “The Minister of Conservation has subsequently received further information on the Mackenzie Basin from DOC’s science team, including presentations and direct discussions.”

Severinsen explains that DOC has a “robust process” for preparing ministerial briefings, and “each briefing has a clear purpose”. A senior official is “accountable for managing associated content and risk”, he says, adding: “This includes ensuring that the content of a briefing is within the scope of its purpose.” It’s the senior official’s job to ensure the final narrative is “appropriate, balanced and consistent”.

But Sage’s brief appeared wide; the purpose open to interpretation. In Severinsen’s own words, the minister wanted: “A 1-2 page summary (must be pithy/succinct – no more than 2 pages) of the biod values in Mackenzie Basin.” Holborow wrote: “The brief was fairly loose and the turn-around was tight.”

Claim contradicted

In his statement, Severinsen says “the technical expert” – Head – was identified in the briefing as the primary contact for the minister for further discussion. But an email from Holborow in January contradicts that claim. It says that deputy director-general Kay Booth was the “accountable” person and “Nick’s name was not specified on the briefing”.

Another point made by Severinsen that’s challenged is a discussion he had with Head after he doctored the briefing. Severinsen says the alterations were “discussed with, and verbally accepted by, the technical expert as soon as possible following the drafting of the briefing”. Severinsen emailed Holborow in January: “Already talked with Nick last week about concerns. All good.”

That, Head says, is “bullshit”. “He came and spoke to me, but not about doctoring my ministerial. There was never any agreement or appeasement of his actions from me. He spoke to me, but that doesn’t mean it settled the issue.”

The matter remains raw for Head, who was suspended and marched from the DOC building three months after the briefing doctoring saga. The ecologist is still concerned about the Mackenzie and is obviously disappointed about the damage done.

His frank and free advice about who’s to blame? “DOC and LINZ both are most probably responsible for the largest and ongoing losses of indigenous biodiversity in New Zealand owing to their development-friendly approach.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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