Our People: Green voice in Government

Eugenie Sage is one of four Green Party MPs to hold ministerial portfolios in the new Government.​ Bridget Rutherford spoke to her about Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peter's decision, campaigning to save beech and rimu forests, and why she loves living in Diamond Harbour.

AT HOME: Eugenie Sage on the Balmacaan Saddle in Hakatere/Ashburton Lakes.

So you’re the new minister of conservation, minister of land information and associate minister for the environment. How does that feel?

I’m really delighted and humbled to have all three. The election campaign and aftermath had been quite noisy – there was a lot we found out at the same time as the rest of New Zealand when the Rt. Hon Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters announced it. Then, 10min later, we had a party teleconference to actually agree to go into Government. I was very pleasantly surprised. Being involved in negotiations, I was incredibly proud of the way the Green Party organised to have that massive teleconference with delegates to make the decision we’d be part of the new Government. There were a lot of discussions considering it is historic; it’s the first time the Greens have been in Parliament in our 21 years. It was an intensive effort by all three parties to examine each other’s policies, look at where common ground was, and prioritise.

Did you expect Mr Peters to make the decision he did?

No, I didn’t know which way it would go.

What will your new ministerial positions consist of?

We’ve got a biodiversity crisis in New Zealand. About 3000 species are at risk of extinction. We need to do much better in protecting native plants and animals and the places they live so these species can thrive. We’ve got an international responsibility to do that because so many are only here in New Zealand. Our natural landscapes, wildlife and special places around Aotearoa are vitally important to tourism – they are what bring tourists here and market our product overseas. The Green Party campaigned for a change of Government to make that ‘100% Pure’ image real – to give it some integrity. We’ve got a real responsibility to deliver on that promise.

Does that bring pressure?

Yes, but it is exciting, though, because voters have given us a mandate.

What’s your favourite animal?

The bellbird I hear at home because of their call, the kea and the robust grasshopper in the Mackenzie Basin. It’s grey so it’s difficult to see. We’ve got an amazing insect fauna in New Zealand that people tend to overlook. I like the longfin eel because they’ve got an incredible life story. They can live to 80-years-old. They live in Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere then they migrate and swim offshore to Tonga where they spawn and die. Then the glass eels drift back through the current and come back to New Zealand. It is an astonishing life cycle. We’ve got a responsibility to protect them, and that’s another of the priorities, particularly making sure the Treaty of Waitangi is properly implemented through the management of things like forestry, fisheries and waterways.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like walking, I do a bit of mountain biking on back roads, and even just going from home in Diamond Harbour around to Lyttelton, then catching the ferry back across. I like going up onto the Port Hills. I used to do a lot of tramping, which I haven’t had much time for recently. I love the high country in the South Island like the upper Rakaia, Ashburton Lakes, Arthur’s Pass and Mt White. They are extraordinary spaces – that’s what makes my heart sing. For many, it’s walking along the beach looking out to sea. Making sure all kids get the opportunity to grow up with nature, that’s what inspired me. I grew up in Auckland, with three siblings, and we used to play a lot in the outdoors.

I think back to summer holidays at Rotorua Lakes and we were able to go off early and play and wouldn’t come back until dinner at night. For families that can afford it, there’s still that opportunity. But there are kids who haven’t been to the beach in New Zealand, and that’s a tragedy.

What brought you to Christchurch?

Family commitments – my partner Richard was down here. I also studied at Canterbury University and in Auckland.

When did you first get into politics?

I was involved in student politics at university. I edited Craccum, the student magazine, at the University of Auckland. I got into environmental protesting; I protested against the first McDonald’s in New Zealand on Queen St. I did some work for the precursor to the Department of Conservation on the West Coast.

I was exposed to the destruction of native forest for logging – these magnificent rimu forests near Hokitika. I was just in tears wandering through these areas, seeing nature’s cathedral being utterly trashed. I worked for Forest and Bird between the mid-1990s through to 2010 at the time of the Timberlands beech logging scheme. A Labour Government stopped the scheme and transferred the land to DOC and it has been invaluable since. It just showed the power of public mobilisation to protect our rain forest.

What are you most proud of?

That and the work for Forest and Bird using the Resource Management Act to have stronger controls on indigenous vegetation clearance and the work on tenure reviews.

What were you doing before you got into politics?

I did a law and history degree at Auckland, and then studied journalism at Canterbury University. The law degree has been really useful in not being scared of legislation.

What do you think of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern?

Jacinda Ardern will be an outstanding prime minister through her leadership skills, analytical skills and her empathy. It’s totally genuine.

Why did you move to Diamond Harbour?

When I stood for Environment Canterbury, I said I would move in if elected. In 2010, as it was coming up to elections, the former Minister for the Environment Nick Smith and Local Government Minister Rodney Hide decided to axe 14 elected councillors and installed commissioners. The only time I have felt welcome in ECan since then was when the people occupied the building in September. That’s a priority, restoring democracy.

What do you like about living there?

It’s on the base of Mt Herbert, and being in the harbour you’re basically looking across to dramatic cliffs. It’s our volcanic heritage. And it’s the people in the community, they support each other. It’s the same in Lyttelton.

Do you have any pets?

I used to have two cats, but that was about 10 years ago. Living in a place with bellbirds and kereru, I appreciate seeing and hearing them.