Credibility missing in Northland mining debate

Last week I helped judge the Lions Young Ambassador Award hosted by the Opononi and Districts Lions Club. I was struck by the speech made by Samanatha Scahill, a 17-year old student at Kerikeri High School. This young lady, who hopes to read medicine at university next year, put her finger neatly on one of the key ingredients missing from the debate over mining currently dividing Northland communities – the voice of reason.

Quite frequently those of us in PR have to take the lead in encouraging the people and organisations we work for to adopt a more conciliatory, middle-of-the-road position on the various issues we engage in.

It’s about credibility. Extreme positions on any subject are unlikely to be found credible in the court of public opinion.

Here’s what Samantha had to say:

Mining is potentially the most polarising issue in Northland today, leading to extreme statements and entrenched views that are damaging to both sides of the debate.

Opposition to mining and mineral exploration is not unjustified. The risks of long and short-term ecological damage present major hurdles that should be neither diminished nor ignored. But it’s unfortunate that the arguments against mining have become so extreme and strident that they’re shutting down any productive discourse on the matter.

One only has to look at the recent focus on the “toxic Maori” quote so mischievously mis-attributed to mining champion Mayor Wayne Brown or drive past the NO MINING graffiti in Kaeo to see how the issue has corralled Northlanders into two distinct categories: those against mining and those for it. The middle ground and the voices of reason, it would seem, have been eliminated from the discussion.

Not only is this name-calling inaccurate, it’s unproductive and discouraging Joe Public from becoming engaged in a very important discussion.

Question whether economic benefits may offset environmental shortfalls and you’re condemned as pro-mining by environmentalists. Likewise, talk to a pro-miner about toxic waste and you’re automatically labelled a greenie. Not only is this name-calling inaccurate, it’s unproductive and discouraging Joe Public from becoming engaged in a very important discussion.

Northland is one of the country’s lowest socio-economic areas, facing massive unemployment and low incomes – economic challenges our current industries are simply not capable of solving. In 2011 mining exploration contributed $50 million to the New Zealand economy. In Northland it’s expected to generate over $13 million in five years. To ignore or disregard such impressive figures is to be not only indulging in wilful ignorance, but it’s also socially irresponsible.

Northland has the highest incidence in New Zealand of the Third World disease, rheumatic fever. It also has a rapidly-escalating child poverty rate. With prospects of serious job creation, widespread investment and multiplier effects on businesses, mining and minerals exploration has the potential to help our communities address some substantial socio-economic issues.

On the other hand, there are serious arguments for approaching mining with caution. Iwi and conservationists alike are rightly concerned about water contamination, deforestation and other adverse environmental impacts. The tourism sector is troubled by potential damage to aesthetics, and farmers have expressed concern over mineral run-off from mines contaminating farms and devastating their livelihood.

With agriculture and tourism being Northland’s principal source of income, these arguments deserve equal recognition and response. But information regarding plans to handle these environmental concerns has been nigh-on impossible to find, a fact which isn’t helping to reduce opposition.

And this is the very core of the issue. Open any newspaper in Northland and you’ll see we’re focussed on the banality of who is supporting which argument. And on the extremes of both sides of the debate. Where is the reasoned discussion on the pros and cons? Where is the rational analysis and logical examination?

The only way the issue of mining can be dealt with positively is in the open, without name-calling and accusations. If the Council lays out a clear plan that deals with the major environmental concerns and we decide subsequently that mining is a viable solution, then what a fantastic outcome for our economy. And if the council’s plan leaves us unsatisfied and we decide mining is not viable, then so be it.

But let’s have the debate first. And let’s give the voices of reason – on both sides of the debate – some decent air-time.


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