Awaroa : Triumph of Romance over Rationality

Gareth MorganEnvironment

Congratulations to all those who contributed to the Awaroa crowdfunding campaign – you got your wish. I have no intention to question how people spend their money, but I do think that the price paid was too high – both from a conservation and purely financial perspective. I will certainly find better value for my conservation dollar elsewhere. In particular I was sad to see taxpayers money being used here to curry political favour.

While people celebrated I spent yesterday thrashing around native bush in Westland – on a 200 acre block that stands between the public, a beach and a National Park. From a conservation perspective, this block of land is a far better buy than Awaroa. Let me explain.

The 200 acre property adjoins a National Park on the West Coast. It has a beach adjacent to it, that has large swathes of untouched native forest, and is adjacent to Highway 6. If I bought it, I could covenant it so the public has easy access to this National Park from one of the country’s most beautiful beaches.

Buying this property, chopping off a bit for a great house site and selling the public the other 198 acres would cost 1/60th per ha of what Awaroa has. Alternatively, I could just gift DOC the land, and it would only cost me a bit more than the $300k the Awaroa funders were seeking from me last weekend. Compared to Awaroa it’s a no-brainer. My inbox is full of conservation opportunities like this one.

Meanwhile the pretty Awaroa beach has sold for around $2.8m, with the government providing $350k to clinch the deal. Even putting aside the conservation issues above, in my view the public has paid far too high a price for what they have got.

Public access to this strip of land could very easily have been secured for under $500k and ownership is totally unnecessary to achieve that. To do that they not only needed to get the bidding out of the public arena, but also once the site was purchased the beach could have been covenanted and the land resold.

But as we all know that purchase was not about rational behaviour, it was all about romance, we fell in love with the pretty picture and after that, the madness of crowds took over. There are two faults with allowing hysteria to win the day. Firstly the price paid for guaranteed public access in perpetuity was nuts and completely unnecessary, and secondly taxpayer funds should not be used for political purposes.

Let me tell you about my last week. Yes they came to me again, the crowd’s funding cheerleaders.

Last time I heard from them they only had about $1m and they needed a hand up given donations were flagging. My response then was to offer a strategem whereby we could stimulate the rate of donations, get the beach for a price below $2m, give the public access in perpetuity and then sell the beach again with that covenant attached. I would wear the loss (which I hoped would be bugger all). Thanks but no thanks.

After the tender closed, the real hustling began. This will be news to many who don’t realise that winning a tender from our real estate industry merely gives you the right to enter an auction which the agent then conducts between the top tenderers. They call that post-tender “negotiation”. So the final price is some 40% above the $2m the public were marketed.

Anyway those last hours of ramping from the agent left the Romantics about $300k short. I was asked to stump up – again. I was told the government was in now for a few hundred thousand too.

If $2m was way over the top for public access, $2.8m was obsene– and now the government was usurping taxpayer money to curry political favour too. Pretty obviously I decided there was no place for rational philanthropy here. During a weak moment, I’d given them a few dollars unconditionally, that was enough.

Finally we have the unseemly side of this – the government coming in to get the romantics what they want. My Key has just repeated precisely what he did to the credibility of Pharmac with his Herceptin intervention. We should all remember that. He ignored what the best value for the Pharmac dollar was, he wanted Herceptin funded for political reasons, and so sent those on top of the medicines priority list out into the cold so he could be cheered on by the Herceptin crowd.

Think about the Awaroa intervention and the message it sends to conservationists. There really is no need to prove that your conservation initiative has the best ecological dividend per dollar invested. All you need to do is get enough of the public excited, get the media to amplify your calls and my government will be happy to use taxpayer money to get some reflected glory.

I’ve been very happy to turn down the offers for help to buy Awaroa, and will be looking to spend my money on things that actually improve conservation.


Awaroa : Triumph of Romance over Rationality was last modified: February 24th, 2016 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.