New Zealand story: an Appeal to our better nature

Government gets bolder. Meanwhile, Forest & Bird Ambassador Sir Alan Mark launches a public appeal for a Wise Government Response to five crises confronting New Zealand

Styled by participant Gareth Renowden as 'a loose affiliation of New Zealand’s great and good', really, it’s 'people like us'.

For Forest & Bird, the launch of this appeal tomorrow in Dunedin - listing critical risks, and bringing New Zealand leaders together to say that these are too serious for the government any longer to ignore - comes at exactly the right time.

Colin James’ column for the Otago Daily Times this week (5 March 2013) reported Ministers as boasting privately about their success in implementing right wing reforms, a little bit at a time:

Ministers are privately saying they are achieving substantial right-leaning economic reform bit by bit without, so far, scaring voters. ... Ministers have got bolder.

And yet, they persist in being lax at best, in disregarding “unprecedented threats to our collective security”, as the appeal (at sums it up.

When you look at what this government has done, or failed to do, in making its policy decisions, it’s a growing list of lapses; and the more bullish mood spotted by Colin James is reflected in Mrs Adams’ latest RMA reform ideas.

Incidentally, James along with other senior commentators - including Pattrick Smellie, Associate Editor for NZ Energy and Environment, and Capital Letter co-editor Penny Pepperell in the NBR  - considers that with these latest ideas, the government’s much-vaunted ‘balance’ risks tipping a little too far; and that Mrs Adams’ provocative outburst accusing environmental groups of not understanding their core business, being out of touch with New Zealanders, and “intentionally trying to mislead” was an error.

The Minister’s defensiveness may come down to the fact that she’s made no secret: these are ideas backed and promoted by her personally. But they continue her Cabinet’s disturbing pattern of trampling on constitutional and procedural safeguards, and writing off environmental bottom lines. They include:

  • Rewriting the Resource Management Act’s matters of national importance as a set of ‘principles’ - including removing key environmental matters, and adding economic ones.
  • Limiting independence, in favour of government direction, at every stage from submissions and decision-making, through to appeal.
  • Allowing Ministers to directly intervene in local decision-making, including powers to direct Councils, and amend operative local plans. This risks exposing planning decisions, currently independently done, and subject to Environment Court oversight, to lobbying influence.
  • Creating a new government-controlled decision maker to deal with some types of cases, which would not be elected or representative and would be under the control of Ministers.
  • Powers for government to declare by regulation that certain types of resource consents (e.g. those to do with mining?) must not be publicly notified, so that the public would have no say.
  • Freedom for Ministers to decide for themselves if the environmental impacts of their latest pet project can be overlooked, and the project pushed forward.
  • Undermining the role of the Environment Court, by limiting it.
  • Reducing the involvement of the public, which is a key aspect of our resource management system: one of the things that makes the Act about New Zealand, and operates as a partial check on government power.

Mrs Adams' rewriting of the RMA would take apart the framework for sustainable environmental management that it’s been for a quarter century; and your right to have a say in what happens where you live.

The same spirit is reflected in a rushed consultation process, of which we’ve been given almost no notice - again, suggesting contempt for democratic processes, and what anyone else has got to say.

Prior to 1991, when the RMA was passed, it had been the subject of years of public engagement, and 32 discussion papers.

These are only amendments to the existing Act, but nevertheless, they are profound.

The irony is breathtaking. Government knows best (nanny state, anyone?). And so is the contrast, between the laissez faire approach in some circumstances, by a government failing utterly to address the Wise Response risks identified; and Muldoon-style heavy-handedness in others.

Environment groups, including Forest & Bird, the Environmental Defence Society, Ecologic, Fish and Game, Greenpeace NZ, WWF, ECO New Zealand, and the Sustainability Council, are joined in their concerns about the RMA proposals by the Law Society, the Resource Management Law Association, Local Government New Zealand, councils, businesses, and many others.

Former advisor to Nick Smith and Bluegreens' stalwart Guy Salmon is on the warpath. Last week Parliamentary Environment Commissioner Jan Wright fired a warning shot.

A wise government would heed these coalitions building. Objections are no longer just confined to those capable of being dismissed as fringe green eco-types.

As Gareth Renowden sums it up, the Wise Response group “features poets, writers, All Blacks, academics, surgeons and scientists amongst its first 100 supporters”. We know there are good farmers, smart business-people, economists, celebrities - and, in short, other New Zealanders - who think like us.

Is this the first stirrings of a movement that can take us forward?



Claire Browning is a Forest & Bird Conservation Advocate.

[Original reference to Dame Anne Salmond in the standfirst to this post, which implied that she was co-launching the Wise Response appeal, has been deleted. My apologies to Dame Anne, and for any confusion. The error is solely mine. - Ed]