Back to the future, resource management style…

Negative stories abound about our once much-vaunted Resource Management Act. It’s hard to meet a property-owner in my community who doesn’t have a gripe about it.

In my case, it’s personal. My brother and I went through three very expensive, time-consuming resource consents, after we knocked over a rat-infested bach and replaced it with a spacious holiday home.

I was co-teaching a university course in Resource Management Law at the time. I remember my normally mild-mannered brother remarking that ‘your f…ing RMA is costing us a shitload of money’. That seemed a touch unfair.

Since the then world-leading RMA was enacted by the National government in 1991, it’s been the subject of controversy. The Act’s been amended on a number of occasions. Still, its legion of critics want further change.

The National Party now wants to repeal and replace it. Not to be outdone, the Labour government wants to make major changes to it.

First off, they intend to bring in a fast-tracking process for large projects which ‘will allow our post-Covid 19 economic recovery to accelerate’ (Sunday Star-Times, 3/5/20). Given the economic carnage we’re currently experiencing, it’s hard to quibble with that objective.

Under the proposals, large projects would not be dealt with local authorities. Instead, a panel of experts chaired by an Environment Court judge ‘would determine whether a project could be given the green light’.

There would be no public input. Both public and private projects would be eligible.

The Minister for the Environment would be the “gate-keeper”, determining which projects would be fast-tracked. Before doing so, the Minister may consult with relevant local authorities and iwi.

Examples of possibly eligible projects would include‘ ‘roading, walking and cycling, rail, housing, sediment removal from silted rivers and estuaries, new wetland construction, flood management works, and projects to prevent landfill erosion’.

That’s quite a list. According to Environment Minister, David Parker, ‘projects that help alleviate housing challenges, encouraged active transport and enhanced the environment, would be prioritised …. The projects had to be significant in size and create a large number of jobs …’.

The new consenting regime ‘would free up resources at the local council level which should speed up the processing of other consent applications’. Given the current delays in many parts of the country, who would quibble with that.

To soothe the feathers of those of us uncomfortable at the removal of any form of meaningful public involvement in the consent-determining process, the short-term nature of the changes was made clear. They were simply designed to help the economic recovery from Covid 19, and would be repealed in two years.

Really. I’m all in favour of ‘sunset clauses’ in controversial legislation, but in my experience such legislation is seldom repealed after a few years.

Reading the Minister’s press release brought back memories of one of my early involvements in environmental causes – marching, with placard in hand, the streets of miserably-cold Palmerston North, with fellow protesters against the Muldoon government’s National Development Bill 1979.

Now that takes some commitment. Why the fuss?

In July of 79, the National government had revealed that it might adopt ‘special environmental procedures for works of national importance. A special tribunal could be set up to consider all the environmental procedures involved. Fast-track development of the Maui gas field was necessary for NZ to regain its status as “God’s Own Economy” ‘(in then Energy Under-Secretary, Barry Brill’s words)!

In early October 79, the National Development Bill was formally introduced into parliament. Energy Minister, Bill Birch, made it clear that the government was determined to pass the bill into law before the end of the year.

The very wide powers given to the Minister for National Development were widely condemned (eg, the power to ignore the recommendations of the specially-constituted Planning Tribunal). A headline in the Christchurch Press read – Bill ‘smacks of dictatorship’ (30/10/79).

There was even opposition to aspects of the bill within the National caucus. Hamilton-West MP, Michael Minogue, gave his National Party caucus colleagues a list of 20 reasons why he found the bill, as introduced, ‘unacceptable’.

Under the bill, the provisions in 28 other laws could be overridden. Appeals to the courts concerning the validity of Orders-in-Council promulgated under the Bill were not to be permitted. No wonder the then very conservative New Zealand Law Society was woken from its slumber.

The Opposition Labour Party supported aspects of the bill (eg, the streamlining of disparate consent procedures), but not the extraordinary powers given to the Minister.

Following an indefensible, incomplete hearing of submissions, largely opposing key aspects of the bill, it was reported back. Some changes were made (eg, a right to appeal to the Court of Appeal), but nowhere enough to pacify its opponents. They included New Zealand’s legendary first Ombudsman, Sir Guy Powles.

The National Development Bill completed its parliamentary passage in December 79. Labour promised to repeal it when it became the government. At the 81 election – held shortly after the end of the infamous 81 Springboks rugby tour – National won with a one seat majority.

Labour swept to power in 1984. However, despite the party’s trenchant opposition to the legislation, the National Development Act was not repealed until 1986. Until that time and beyond, the ‘think big’ mentality cemented in by that Act reined supreme.

Despite the real differences between the current proposals for ‘large projects’ and those contained in the highly-controversial National Development Bill 1979, news of the scope of the latest proposals brought back memories of my modest, albeit chilly, involvement in the campaign against the latter over 40 years ago.

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Tim McBride

Human rights author and commentator