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Frank Newman

Echoes of Orewa

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Twelve years ago Don Brash, as the then leader of the National Party, delivered a landmark speech to the Orewa Rotary Club:  He dared to confront the issue of separatism. While the response from some was predictably shrill, the message resonated with enough voters to rebuild National’s support from what had been a crushing election defeat under Bill English.

Last week it was Winston Peters at the podium in Orewa and Don Brash in the pews, but the message was the same – that racial privilege is dividing our country.  Mr Peters referred specifically to the separatist changes being made to the Resource Management Act:

“New Zealand First will, in the committee stage of the RMA Bill, move amendments to cut red tape and bring common sense to the RMA. We will do so on one condition, that National will drop ALL provisions in the bill that provide separate rights based on race.”

New Zealand’s First’s position on the RMA is quite clear. Mr Peter’s quoted from their election Manifesto:

“If New Zealand’s economy is to reach its potential then it must have world leading planning and resource consent laws. After 19 years the RMA clearly requires thorough revision to improve processes and procedures, reduce compliance costs, clarify expectations and responsibilities, and to facilitate progress and protection. Many of the problems that have arisen in relation to the RMA have been about delays in the consent process, costs, consultation requirements and lack of uniformity in how local councils approach the Act. Therefore the remedy must be threefold: to more strictly define and clarify the processes required to effectively adhere to the Act; to remove many of the obstacles and present frustrations which have unnecessarily become part of these processes; and to ensure that all affected parties have unhindered access to the consent process.”

This is consistent with National’s own objectives for the RMA which include:

  • Requiring councils to follow national planning templates.
  • A faster consents process, and
  • Reduced requirements for consents.

Mr Peter’s quoted from a speech Environment Minister Nick Smith gave to the Nelson Rotary Club last year:

“The Act has some fundamental design flaws that require substantial overhaul. The purposes and principles are outdated and ill matched with the reality of the issues it manages like housing development. The plan making process is too cumbersome and slow. The Act needs re engineering away from litigation towards collaboration. Property owners need stronger protection from unnecessary bureaucratic meddling. We need stronger national consistency and direction.”

Unfortunately the Minister’s comments then, and the Bill now before Parliament’s Local Government and Environment Select Committee, are poles apart.

The Environment Minister himself, admits as much in the documents supporting the proposed changes.  Nick Smith, says, “The Bill is a compromise with the Maori Party and they have strongly advocated for better processes for iwi to be involved in council plan making. Councils will need to engage with local iwi on how they will involve them in their resource management processes. The objective is to ensure iwi are consulted on issues that are important to them…”

Specifically, Mr Peters quoted Dr Smith as saying, “There were eight changes that were in the proposals that were put up in 2013 that were not in the bill as a consequence of their advocacy.”

Mr Peters then explained, “Well that is where things get particularly disturbing. As it currently stands, the RMA provides for iwi to become consenting authorities. This can take the form of either a full consenting authority or a joint consenting authority along, with local councils. These provisions have been rarely used, with the Joint Management Agreement between Ngati Porou and the Gisborne District Council being perhaps the most well-known.  Under this agreement, Ngati Porou will move from being a joint consenting authority to a full consenting authority, within five years, over the entire Gisborne region.

“Under the new bill, every council in New Zealand will be required by law, to invite the local iwi to ‘discuss, agree and record ways in which tangata whenua’ through iwi authorities, can participate in the formulation of policy plans, including water management plans. All of this has to happen within just 30 days of a council being elected.

“This is just the starting point. The spokesperson for the Iwi Leaders Group, Rahui Papa said of the bill, that it was ‘A positive first step in advancing our objectives of better environmental outcomes and improving Maori participation in resource management processes.’ Note the words ‘first step’! Iwi really want much, much more…

“They [National] were bent over a barrel and not surprisingly, didn’t have the back bone to stand up to them. Nor did they have the common sense to look around to the one party that could help – New Zealand First.”

So why are National and NZ First not co-operating on the RMA changes when they seem in general agreement on what needs to change? According to Mr Peters, “The truth is following the Northland bi-election the Government did not even bother to come and speak to New Zealand First about this legislation. Not once. Not even so much as an email or a phone call. Not a word, not a whisper, not a mutter nor a murmur.”

It seems the obstacle is neither party wants to be the one that goes cap in hand to the other. In my view both National and NZ First should get over whatever it is that is preventing them from conversing. They should not only talk – they should co-operate on this issue (without compromising their right to disagree on other issues).

Both parties have a great deal to gain by co-operating, as do all New Zealanders. National will avoid the fall-out of having to “be bent over a barrel” by the Maori Party, a Party that barely has a political mandate at all. And NZ First will show that it can be responsible and constructive, cementing its place as a party of the centre.

By not co-operating, both National and NZ First have allowed a party which gains just 1.3% of the vote to dictate its terms to the majority. Those demands have gone further than giving iwi a greater say in local council rule making and consenting.  As Mr Peters alludes, iwi are also likely to be granted racial privileges regarding fresh water.

It is no coincidence that National’s RMA deal with the Maori Party refers to water because National will soon announce a major reform of the way fresh water is managed. National MPs are already attempting to minimise the intensity of the impending debate by repeating the Party mantra that no one owns water. They conveniently ignore the reality that granting a use right that confers all of the benefits of ownership is ownership in all but name.

There are likely to be two key elements to the fresh water debate. The first is why iwi should have any special right to fresh water at all.  According to the Iwi Chairs Forum, water is important to Maori because, Our wai (water) is an inseparable part of our whakapapa and our identity, and is a fundamental part of what drives our very existence.”

National appears to have accepted Maori have a special rights regarding fresh water. Others say spirituality and moon gazing should not be driving economics in a modern economy.

The second element of the debate is how water should be allocated and if Maori are to have special privileges, how they would be addressed. One option being considered is a tradeable quota system. Essentially this would give those holding a quota the right to draw a specified volume of water over a defined period (like 20 years or longer). Those rights have a value and would be tradeable on the open market which, according to market purists, would result in the water resource being fully allocated and put to its best economic use.

Another option is an administrative-based approach where decisions about who gets fresh water and how much, are made by local councils (with 50% or majority iwi representation on the decision-making committees).

The issue is of particular importance to the farming and horticulture sectors, large industrial users, and local councils.  All users will want to protect their existing use rights, be assured future rights will be allocated fairly on need rather than racial preference, and they will want assurances about cost, given the supply of water is in effect a monopoly.

A discussion document on options for the reform of water management and allocation will be released by the government shortly and while the public will be invited to make submissions, in reality it is Mr Peters and National that are the ones who could make real and significant changes to the RMA and the rights Maori have to fresh water.