Before Fish & Game’s review, a revolt

As a review starts into Fish & Game, internal letters reveal blunt complaints about the national council’s boss. David Williams reports

In early February, a series of letters written out of uncertainty and suspicion were sent to the New Zealand Fish and Game Council and its then chairman Lindsay Lyons.

They were prompted by talk of a strategic review, discussed at a Fish & Game governors’ meeting in Christchurch last November. A theory was the review was motivated by a bid to centralise control, within the national council, of the organisation’s 12 semi-autonomous regional councils. Also, recent audits of the Hawke’s Bay, North Canterbury and Central South Island regions were being used, unfairly, as ammunition, it was alleged.

If there was indeed a hidden agenda, who controlled the review would be paramount. The letters also contained a whiff of revolt against chief executive Martin Taylor, by regional managers and staff.

In April, Lyons was rolled as chairman, and, last month, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage announced an independent review of Fish and Game. The reporting of these events has been dominated by concerns of a farmer takeover of the national council, seemingly confirmed by a gagging order – since overturned – on Taylor making negative statements about farmers.

The February letters give voice to regional council managers and staff, highlighting deep divisions between the regions and chief executive – so deep, some say, that they appear unworkable.

Given the ministerial review will probe governance and organisational arrangements, that leaves serious questions over whether that wound can heal. It’s an important issue for a body with 144 regional governors, representing 150,000 hunters and anglers.

“The actions and poor transparency of the NZC CEO are causing the development of a concerning level of mistrust, a toxic culture within the organisation.” – Fish & Game staff collective

Five of the South Island’s six regional Fish & Game chairs wrote to Lyons on February 4, saying a review was timely but bristling at the lack of consultation. They were adamant key decisions shouldn’t be placed in the hands of the national council, which, they said, should also be re-evaluated.

The letter from Andrew Simpson, Owen Baigent, Graeme Watson, Alan Strong and Monty Wright seems oblivious to how seriously Minister Sage was considering a review. (Sage met the council on February 15. That night, she wrote to Department of Conservation chief of governance Mervyn English: “In a national statutory body as important as Fish and Game I believe there is significant room for improvement.”)

The southern quintet demanded of Lyons the review’s terms of reference, and the appointment of reviewers, should be agreed by a majority of the 13 councils, including the national council, and a review steering committee be established, comprising members agreed by those councils. Not only that, but members, licence holders and other stakeholders should all be consulted.

Another letter, from a Fish & Game “staff collective”, written about the same time, is understood to be signed by the vast majority of the organisation’s regional staff. They raise “serious concerns” about Taylor, the national council’s (NZC) chief executive since late 2017.

He’s accused of a “continual aggressive, adversarial, dictatorial style”. Staff wrote they’re becoming increasingly alarmed, alienated and distracted, and morale is actively declining. (A long-term Fish and Game staffer reckons morale is the lowest they’ve ever seen.)

“The actions and poor transparency of the NZC CEO are causing the development of a concerning level of mistrust, a toxic culture within the organisation,” the letter says, noting “an unhealthy and deteriorating relationship forming between NZC and staff”.

Taylor’s public statements, it seems, were causing conflicts for regional staffers. In the letter, it’s noted the “content of external communications” is “hampering the ability of staff to effectively do their jobs, causing a significant deterioration in relationships”.

The views of regional managers seem more strategic. In a letter written to the national council on February 11, they suggest the results of the three recent audits were being “overstated” to support “centralising or restructuring Fish & Game”.

Managers were angry Fish & Game was being portrayed in the media as dysfunctional with “the conspicuous absence of any positive rebuttal from the NZ Council”. The council, they wrote, was “effectively complicit”.

A steadily widening gulf had opened up between regional managers and Taylor, they wrote, with relations at an “all-time low”. “We can’t afford to dismiss or ignore these issues, they need to be addressed with urgency.”

Direct style, running rule over regions

Newsroom asked Taylor about the letters, sending him excerpts in case he hadn’t read them.

His emailed reply, in full, says: “The New Zealand Fish and Game Council represents all freshwater anglers and game bird hunters and works to protect the environment for future generations of New Zealanders.

“As chief executive, I have always acted with the direction and support of the New Zealand Fish and Game Council to achieve the best outcome for all anglers and hunters.

“The Minister of Conservation has initiated a review of the governance of Fish & Game by a panel of two independent experts. While this targeted ministerial review is underway, we are unable to add anything further.”

Former chairman Lyons, of Bay of Plenty, mounts a stern defence of Taylor, saying the council in 2017 – different to today’s members – were searching for a businessman who could identify the organisation’s shortcomings and modernise it. Taylor ticked all the boxes.

“He has got a very direct style. He just said, this is the way it’s got to be, this is how we’ve got to do it. A lot of that doesn’t go well in the regions.”

That’s certainly true. One regional staffer says Taylor has an agenda and isn’t a team player. “It boils down to him being the wrong man for the job.”

The staffer admits the regions generally don’t get told what to do, but says they’re still science-led. A regional focus makes each council adaptable and responsive, they say.

“Every region’s autonomous – they have their own council that determine regional priorities. That’s because New Zealand varies greatly from the top of the north to the bottom of the south.”

Lyons, who has been on the national council for 12 years, six as chairman, believes Fish & Game needs to modernise and the regions have too much power. Taylor’s looking at internal finances of the regions, he says – “they don’t like that”.

“The kickback we’re getting at the present point in time, and some of the nasty things that have been said, are just things to destabilise where we’re going with this review. I think the reviewers are going to be a step above that, look beyond that, and see what needs to change.”

The review, which has already passed through Otago and Southland, is a “cleansing process”, Lyons says. “It’s a time to modernise,” he says. “We’re currently sitting in a 30-year-old time warp.”

Room for fine-tuning

Andrew Simpson, the Central South Island regional chair, takes a different view. He says Fish & Game’s regional structure has stood the test of time. (The review’s terms of reference state: “The principle of a regional structure is also to be maintained.”)

“There’s probably room for fine-tuning it – I think it’s actually a fundamentally sound model.”

Simpson, a lawyer who divides his time between Ashburton and Wellington, says the South Island chairs’ letter to the national council, which he signed, was written in a climate of uncertainty. “We wanted [the review] objective, we wanted it to cover the entire organisation, and we wanted independent experts to conduct it, and we’re very pleased that that’s what’s happening.”

Of course, Central South Island is one of the three audits in recent years which some have said highlight problems within Fish & Game – that its devolved structure isn’t up to standard.

Simpson describes that as the “no smoke without fire argument”. “As I see it, it actually demonstrated a strength of system.” There were grounds for concern at Central South Island, he says, which were investigated, and the region was given a “clean bill of health”.

(The allegations involved the business interests of former Central South Island chairman Gary Rooney, who retired before the 2018 elections. Reviewer Bruce Robertson said in his April 2019 audit report: “Based on a detailed review of documentation provided and a series of interview, nothing has come to the attention of the audit that confirms or indicates that the set of complaints can be substantiated.”)

The council has since adopted a new conflicts management framework, governance policy, revised its policy on financial delegations, and adopted a risk management framework – the latter, Simpson thinks, a first for a regional Fish & Game council.

“We feel we’re in a better place now than we were when the audit was initiated.”

Late last year, Lyons asked Hawke’s Bay Fish & Game chairman Bruce Bates to step down after an audit, but he refused.

Another Fish & Game staffer, who asked to remain anonymous, said the council went to great lengths to “intentionally overstate” the findings of that audit. “There is a very strong feeling that there has been a huge amount of politicking going on by Martin, Lindsay Lyons and a small group of their supporters to force the minister into this review.”

Such a review is seen by some as a “power grab” by Taylor. The staffer writes: “F&G will wither and die as a centralised bureaucracy, and water quality will suffer as a result.”

What is coordination?

Central to arguments about the organisational structure is what’s written in the Conservation Act. It says the national council’s role is “to represent nationally the interests of anglers and hunters and provide coordination of the management, enhancement, and maintenance of sports fish and game”.

New national council chairman Paul Shortis, of the Wairarapa, says the word coordinate could mean anything from broad consultation and regional consensus for decision-making to “simply inform”. “The organisation felt that we’d swung more towards ‘inform’ than ‘consult’.”

Lyons was replaced, Shortis says, because he refused to accept a change of direction for the council. A classic example, he says, is the continued alienation of farmers with a good environment attitude by blunt general statements about farmers in general. (The first Fish & Game staffer says broad, sweeping generalisations about intensive agriculture are “not considered to be constructive”. However, Lyons says the council shouldn’t cosy up to the likes of Federated Farmers and DairyNZ “because Fish & Game have got a leading voice on freshwater advocacy”.)

It’s time to engage with farmers, Shortis says. But he dismisses the suggestion farmers have taken over the national council – “there’s no evidence whatsoever”.

“There are some fundamentals that we’re never going to agree with Federated Farmers, I’m sure. What we need to do is agree on how we’re going to disagree early on, not on the Environment Court steps, which is costing both organisations a lot of money and a lot of negative press, when in actual fact we could probably achieve an awful lot before we get to that stage.”

The trio of letters from February are old news, Shortis says. “We’re now getting on with it and we’ve got the bulk of the organisation well behind us.”

He says things have “absolutely calmed down” within the national council since he was appointed chair. “Everybody’s on board with the ministerial review and engaging with it.”

What now?

Reviewers Belinda Clark, a former Secretary for Justice, and former Environment Court commissioner John Mills are expected to produce a report by the end of the year.

They will traverse a tangle of personality issues.

One side of the internal argument says there’s been considerable turnover in the national council and it appears unsettled, which is true. Another view is Lyons was rolled as chairman by a majority of councillors – also true – which suggests only a handful of agitators are pursuing a different direction. “Look at the numbers,” the second staffer urges. “If there is any dysfunction, then who’s actually causing it?”

In terms of numbers, the majority of staff and regional managers at least, not to mention at least some regional councillors, are raising issues about Taylor. “If the organisation was split I think you could argue that there may be a mandate for whatever is happening,” the first staffer says. “But the reality is there’s overwhelming opposition to the way the organisation has tracked since Martin’s pushed that he has this so-called mandate for change.”

Lyons admits he pushed the minister to conduct a review, and he expects change. “We’re not operating efficiently.”

The former chairman conducted Taylor’s performance appraisal last year. He says the major organisations Fish & Game works with, like Forest & Bird and Environmental Defence Society, had high praise for him, as a forward thinker and strategic thinker.

But Lyons’ defence strays into misogyny when he mentions the staff collective letter was “signed by office girls”. “Nothing against office girls, but they have no idea of the running of NZ Fish & Game Council, or the governance matters of the New Zealand council … They just don’t understand it.”

While initially there were concerns about a crisis being manufactured to centralise Fish & Game, Shortis, at least, appears relaxed.

“Having talked to the minister and been through the process of developing the review, nothing could be further from the truth. We’re 30 years in – we’re overdue, probably, for a review of the way in which we function, at a governance level and a management level. Probably what you’re seeing in a couple of those letters is a worry that we couldn’t engage with the review. In actual fact, the minister drove the review.”

A note from Minister Sage, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, shows her keen interest – and a determination to improve and modernise the organisation. In the April 30 note, she asks DoC to draft terms of reference and a letter to Shortis to advise the review is proceeding.

“I appreciate the new chair may have thoughts for improving the organisation’s functioning but the issues revealed by the three regional audits are significant,” the minister writes. “Fish and Game and the recreational interests it represents are too important for the organisation to continue to flounder because of deep-seated conflicts and poor governance. I have flagged the prospect of a review with Fish and Game several times.”

Tellingly, the letter’s final sentence is redacted – the reason for which, from the Act, is to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through “free and frank expression”.

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