Friday, May 7, 2021

The most revealing story you're likely to read today

From the "You Couldn't Make This Stuff Up" file: the latest press release from the Taxpayers' Union. This is a telling snapshot of New Zealand in 2021 and quite possibly the most important story of the day, but don't expect to see it widely publicised.  

7 MAY 2021


Taxpayers shelled out thousands of dollars transporting a dead turtle from Banks Peninsula to Wellington, storing it in a freezer for 21 months, then sending it back down to where it washed up for a high-powered and fully-catered powhiri, complete with a helicopter ride and a handmade coffin constructed by public servants. No scientific research was performed at any stage.

Based on responses to several Official Information Act requests, plus earlier media reports, the Taxpayers' Union can set out the timeline:

  • In March 2019, a dead leatherback turtle is found on the shore in Banks Peninsula. He is never named though he is known at the Taxpayers' Union as Michelangelo.
  • DOC advises Te Papa that the local Banks Peninsula marae, Koukourārata, has provided approval for Te Papa to receive turtle.
  • A DOC ranger uses a tractor to transfer the turtle to the back of his ute, then commissions a truck belonging to a pet food company to keep the turtle chilled. The ranger warns that transporting the turtle to Wellington will be a "logistical nightmare". The ranger's wage costs are $200.
  • The turtle is collected by Te Papa from the Department of Conservation office in Christchurch and driven up to Wellington in Te Papa’s Toyota Hilux, at a reported cost of $475.75.
  • The turtle arrives at Te Papa's Tory Street facility, where staff plan to perform a necropsy, check its gut for plastic, gather biological information for "the global turtle research community", and ultimately skeletonise the corpse.
  • In an apparent change of heart from the local iwi, Ngāi Tahu representative Matui Payne tells media of "a sense of grief and sadness that we didn't have the opportunity to grieve for our kaitiaki, for our tipuna." Te Papa cites "issues relating to consultation and support" and enters into discussion with Koukourārata "regarding the return and repatriation of the honu [turtle]."
  • The late turtle spends 21 months in Te Papa's freezer.
  • No scientific research is conducted. Te Papa explains, "To enable scientific research to be undertaken, the turtle would have had to be skeletonised (i.e. processes undertaken to reduce the turtle remains to a skeleton). In conjunction with tikanga, it is usually important that all parts of the taonga or specimen (in this case, the turtle) should be buried, if possible. . .In terms of science objectives, Te Papa has not conducted any research on the turtle during its time at Te Papa so has not gained any research insights."
  • At some point, Te Papa staff build a "te honu crate" or turtle coffin, with materials costing $580.85.
  • On 11 December 2020, Te Papa staff are joined by a contingent from Koukourārata for a karakia (prayer) in Wellington.
  • DOC transports the turtle from Wellington back to Bank Peninsula in a refrigerated truck. The three-day journey includes reported costs of $940 in mileage, $448 for the Cook Strait ferry crossing, and $500 in wage costs. A Koukourārata representative accompanies the turtle during this journey.
  • Eight Te Papa staff, including members of the Board and the senior leadership team, fly to Canterbury for the deceased turtle's powhiri.
    • Domestic travel, car rental and accommodation: $4,327.77
    • Powhiri and kai for 40 people: $880.00
  • At the powhiri, the eight Te Papa staff are joined by seven DOC staff.
    • Four of the DOC staff are paid by the hour, for a total cost of $600.
    • DOC pays a $200 koha to the Koukourārata.
    • DOC spends $130 on mileage.
  • The turtle arrives at its powhiri, is removed from its coffin, placed on an altar to thaw while speeches are given, and eventually strapped to a crate and flown via helicopter to its burial site: a hilltop on a nearby island. DOC pays $1600 for the helicopter service. Video and photographs from the day capture these events.
  • Two DOC staff conduct an archeological survey of the burial site, and three staff dig the hole. Reported wage costs for these activities are $900.

Union spokesperson Louis Houlbrooke says, "The total cost to taxpayers for Michelangelo's eventful afterlife is difficult to quantify, but we would place it in the tens of thousands. Te Papa and DOC's total reported expenses were $11,742.31, but that excludes the time cost for high-level salaried staff."

"Te Papa was prepared to obtain this turtle for research on a rare species. That is valid. Koukourārata, who had expressed no interest when the turtle first washed up, suddenly wanted it back and intact. The result was a truly bizarre odyssey that saw a dead turtle travel by land, sea, and air, before ultimately being buried by public servants on a hilltop."

"After thousands of dollars and 21 months of fuss, the turtle ends up right back where it started, providing no scientific insights. In fact, Te Papa told us over the phone that they couldn't even verify whether the turtle was male or female. What a waste. Such a majestic creature deserved far better than to wait 21 months in a freezer while bureaucrats negotiated a protracted repatriation mission that would make the Ministry of Foreign Affairs blush."

"We have to give some credit to Te Papa and DOC for their thorough answers to our questions. We get the sense they're proud of the enormous time, attention, and staff hours they've devoted to Michelangelo's odyssey. Unfortunately, they've tarnished the turtle's legacy with this epic saga of government waste."

Source documents and photographs are available on the Taxpayers' Union's website here.


Andy Espersen said...

It always feels good to get yourself a good belly-laugh. But in this case I must say that I simply do not believe that our common sense, realistic Maori of old would treat turtles in any different way from all the other big meaty animals, birds or fishes coming their way, namely eat them with gusto. And they weren’t stupid. I believe they were probably the most advanced stone age people on the globe – on the verge of farming settlements. They would never ever waste time carrying washed up, dead turtles to bury them with full ceremony up on a far off hilltop.

I now think everything our present iwi tell us about their past traditions and culture should be checked, analysed and scientifically verified by independent anthropologists from European or American universities.

This example of “Maori culture” simply does not ring true.

Unknown said...

They are making our case for us

hughvane said...

FYI, Koukourārata is Port Levy based.

Having lived on Banks Peninsula for decades, I believe most of the Maori there with whom I dealt over that period of time were much more level-headed and rational.

I get the distinct impression that the modern iwi and hapu there - and elsewhere - have been infiltrated by so-called activists who stir the pot amongst their elders and leaders for all they're worth.

I've learned that there IS a Maori word for 'accountability' - kawenga takohanga. I don't see any evidence of it in the event described in Karl's blog.

Odysseus said...

What a wonderful, heart-warming and enriching (for some) story. How can we get the movie rights? It would be great if we can sign Mr Bean to play the head of DOC (or Te Papa - both outfits seem equally absurd).

Max Ritchie said...

I think that the story of this Michelangelo should be trotted out every time one of these occasions arises. Heads sold and sent to Europe with nary a thought now need a team of 10 to escort them home, business class, that sort of thing. Give them all the Michelangelo Test.

Unknown said...

How many other countries can claim to have a Tomb of the Unknown Turtle? That said, surely us taxpayers could have shelled out a little extra for a 21 gun salute?

Unknown said...

This story is up there with the West Coast snail saga of a few years back......histerically funny if it weren't actually true!

Mark Wahlberg said...

Several years ago, returning North after 10 days circumnavigating the South island on our new motorbike and traveling  on an afternoon Bluebridge ferry from Picton, me and Tigerlil (the wife) struck up a conversation with a middle aged American couple returning to Wellington after they had had an accident plagued weekend in the Marlborough Sounds. 

The wife  had broken her leg on the 2nd day of what was to be a week away from the chaos of the husbands employment as a professional museum exhibits coordinator at Te Papa in Wellington..  From what we were told, they had to return to the Capital for medical care in a private hospital under the terms and conditions of their private health insurance. 

They explained their problems were further compounded with the house they rented at Pukerua Bay being at the bottom of 100 steps. 

On a low ebb, the American couple poured out their woes to me and Tigerlil as we endured a rough crossing  of Cook Strait. 

The gentleman was in New Zealand on a 18month  sabbatical for what he believed to be a  a position of equal importance to the one he held at  a university/museum in New York. After 6 months they were  disillusioned with Te Papa  and homesick for America.

Seems the work the gentleman thought he was undertaking, turned out to be for  a role way beneath his professional capabilities and he was answerable to a cultural commissar who held no academic qualifications, but had final say on all matters. 

We parted company with the couple in Wellington and Tigerlil and I often think of the time and place of our conversation with the American's  and trust the bloke survived his exposure to the alien world of political correctness he found himself in.

Dominic Baron said...

Ah! What a splendid concept: The Tomb of the Unknown Turtle. How majestic, how divine! Only 21 gun salute? How old was this sage and and benighted creature? Two guns for every year of his respected and meritorious life, surely... (oops! I made a crude assumption about the turtle's ineffable sex... but I wasn't to know... we weren't supplied with the holy pronouns...)

Johnston said...

I loved Stuff's coverage. Whatever Stuff's intention, their reporting quoted the organisers of the turtle funeral in a way that damned them more than any critical take would. Some choice quotes with my interpretation:

"Te Papa wanted it for research purposes - it would reduce the remains down to its skeleton to help identify fossil bones. It would also potentially display it.

"For us that's akin to a very close relative being treated the same way," Dr Payne said.

"It made us cry, it made us very sad to think that would be her fate, particularly given her importance to our environment and to the fabric of our mātauraka [knowledge].""

> Dr Payne seems to suggest that applying the scientific method to a subject, in this case, a turtle, would negatively impact the Maori understanding of turtles. This is intellectual inquiry as not only culturally specific but as a danger to a pre-existing ideology, one which has a dubious connection to pre-European on even early 20th century Maori culture in practice and which has more in common with the Frankfurt School's repressive tolerance, etc.

Te Papa became aware of issues with the consultation and discussions about returning it commenced shortly after it received the turtle.

Te Papa did not do any research on the turtle out of respect, and without the appropriate consent from the rūnanga.

It said according to tikanga, it was important that all parts of the taonga should be buried, if possible.

In December last year it was transported back to Banks Peninsula where a ceremony was held before it was helicoptered to Horomaka Island and laid in a cave dug by hapū.

Dr Payne praised DOC and Te Papa for the way they acted through the repatriation process, and said the relationship between them all has only strengthened.

"Through the process of repatriating honu we've created protocols and very strong relationships that we treasure."

This is an interesting comment by Dr Payne. Reading between the lines it seems as though the hapū did not really have any set protocols to deal with a dead turtle washing up, first not wanting to have anything to do with it, before perhaps realising that there was opportunity for grift, which was likely floated by well-meaning Te Papa staffers in the first place.

There was clearly some confusion on the ground. The good Dr rolls off a number of Maori concepts in explanation as well as dropping in some imported concepts, too. Lay lines:

"Because we believe the wairua associated with this taniwha is still active and her tūpāpaku, her corpse, is laying in a cave which intersects ... [with] the lay-lines of the sea and of the land." (sic).

It's "Ley Lines".

According to Wikipedia:

The idea of "leys" as straight tracks across the landscape was put forward by the English antiquarian Alfred Watkins in the 1920s, particularly in his book The Old Straight Track.


Since the 1960s, members of the Earth Mysteries movement and other esoteric traditions have commonly believed that such ley lines demarcate "earth energies" and serve as guides for alien spacecraft.

"So spiritually then, she remains active in her duty of looking after the environment."

We were told.

Clearly, important Ley Lines intersected with the cave site.

This is the best way to deal with these people and the absurd situations they conjure up as they make everything up as they go along despite claims of ancient providence and practice.


Trev1 said...

Thanks Unknown for your erudite commentary. I hope that the cult of the turtle taonga is maintained with sacred rites and feasting supported by generous taxpayer contributions in the the years ahead. It is a rare and exciting thing to witness a new and eclectic religious practice being made up before our very eyes. I feel privileged as I am sure most people do.

Johnston said...


I agree to a great extent! The question is, can we make this cult a fun sex thing with booze and a pinch of Mary J?

Andy Espersen said...

“unknown” interestingly draws our attention to Dr Matiu Payne’s spiritual, as opposed to scientific, rational understanding of how to deal with this dead turtle (ref. the STUFF report). Dr Payne is without a doubt the “cultural commissar” mentioned in Mark Wahlberg’s very relevant comment above.

Here we observe the basic nature of woke-ness, that peculiar conceptual phenomenon which is now permeating our government and our institutions. In a nutshell, woke-ness means that we are as a country regressing into what can only be described as pre-Enlightenment conditions. Immanuel Kant (I’m quoting Stephen Pinker in his marvelous book “Enlightenment now”) stated that Enlightenment consisted of humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity, its lazy and cowardly submission to the dogmas and formulas of religious or political authority. Enlightenment’s motto, Kant proclaimed, is “Dare to understand!” – and its foundational demand is freedom of thought and speech.

It is a sad development in New Zealand – and I cannot believe it will last. With Karl du Fresne, we must all fight this poisonous, destructive trend. We must fight for Reason, Science, Humanism, Progress.

Johnston said...

Well, well:

Odysseus said...

I see a second deadly sea snake has come ashore in Northland:

Will there be a powhiri? Or are only charismatic megafauna considered taonga?

Hilary Taylor said...

Terrific comments...It's utterly the case that it's all an 'ooportunity for grift', as Unknown says. Good grief...load of ol' bollocks & shame on all who enabled it....go the TPU for exposure.

Mark Wahlberg said...

I just remembered the Hoopla created with the unearthing of Moa bones during the excavations for the new highway which is replacing the old Manawatu Gorge linking West to East over the Ruahine Range.

Unearthing the bones was described as a "Deep and spiritual moment."

Like the turtle, there was much pomp and pageantry before the "Bones" were removed for forensic testing at Te Manawa Museum.

What happens next is anybodies guess. Perhaps a shrine at the top of the Ruahine range on the point where east meets West?

Trev1 said...

@ Mark Wahlberg: Well if there is to be a shrine let these words be inscribed forever more upon it in remembrance:

"No moa, no moa, they're gone from Aeoteoroa

Can't get 'em, they et 'em

They're gone and there ain't no moa."

(From a piece of non woke kiwiana of the 60s.)

Karl du Fresne said...

It should be noted that the song you mention was recorded (and I think written) by the Howard Morrison Quartet, who were Maori. Whimsical humour like theirs, making light of racial differences, wouldn't be permitted today. Neither, I suspect, would Billy T James.

hughvane said...

Te latest breaking nius! DoC has sent an EV - my, how trendy - to Stewart Is, aka Rakiura, where there is only diesel generated power to recharge the vehicle's batteries. Now there's DoC logic for you.