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Dr Muriel Newman

MMP Tail Wags Parliamentary Dog

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United_FutureLast week New Zealanders saw yet another example of minor parliamentary parties, that secure only a fraction of the vote in a general election, having disproportionate power under MMP. In such circumstances, instead of proportional representation, which advocates of MMP argue is a cornerstone value, the system serves up disproportional representation and policy compromise.

The latest culprits holding the government to ransom are United Future and the Maori Party. These two government support parties joined forces to pull the plug on National’s Resource Management Act (RMA) reforms – reforms that are central to the government’s business growth agenda to improve New Zealand’s economic wellbeing. Contrary to what the green lobby says, as it stands, the RMA prioritises environmental protection and sustainability ahead of community needs for jobs and growth. This imbalance has curtailed economic growth in many parts of the country, as well as creating massive housing shortages and escalating house prices in some centres.

The trouble with the RMA is that many New Zealanders have little appreciation of the impact that this law has on our daily lives – and the future. There are literarily thousands of wealth creating projects up and down the country that have been shelved over the years because the RMA consent process is too costly, too complex, and too time consuming.

For many people, their first contact with the RMA minefield will be for a relatively minor issue such as wanting to extend the deck on a house or remove a tree. Depending on the issue and the council involved, even simple matters can turn into a nightmare – although, to be fair, most people sail through the consent process relatively unscathed.

For others, an unexpected letter from the council may be the start of an RMA horror story. This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, investment analyst and former councillor Frank Newman, shares just such an example:

“In 2005 a local business person placed a sign (orange) on an existing frame on private property in a paddock some 30 metres from a local road. Located nearby was a sign (blue) of a similar size promoting the services of a nearby quarry. That too had been there for many years.

“In May 2010 both sign owners received threatening letters from the Council requiring them to remove their sign within 5 days or else ‘enforcement action may ensue pursuant to the provisions of the Resource Management Act 1991’.

“Being fine upstanding members of the community – and not wishing to potentially spend up to two-years in prison for breaching the RMA – each completed the required forms and paid the requisite $1,000 application fee.

“Things went well for the owner of the blue sign. They received a consent without any difficulties. Not so the orange sign owner. It seems the Council had a problem with orange in a green landscape. On 6 December 2012 Council’s Principal Planner wrote to the offending orange sign owner as follows, ‘…the effects of the sign are clearly more than minor and that Council will proceed with notification of the application, which is required by the Resource Management Act. You will be invoiced for costs associated with full public notification, the preparation of a report with recommendations to a Commissioner (to decline) and costs associated with a hearing should you or any submitter request to be heard, as well as Commissioner costs for a decision on the application. I confirm your advice that you will be contacting your solicitor and that Council will receive correspondence from you on this matter today. Please advise by C.O.B. today if you wish to withdraw the application, otherwise Council will proceed with the preparation of notification documentation, for which you will be invoiced.’

“The Council estimated that the additional cost of public notification would be $3,500. In the end the orange sign owner gave up and removed the sign. But that was not the end of the matter. They subsequently received a further invoice from the Council for $3,285.51 for staff time processing the now abandoned consent.”

Three years after receiving the original letter from the council, the nightmare continues as the council pursues the owner of the sign for costs. Objections have been lodged, but you can well imagine the stress on the applicant and their family.

While it can be argued that the original intent of the RMA was ‘enabling’ – providing any environmental effects are ‘mitigated’ – over the years the process has been captured by environmental lobbyists and turned into the costly and complex bureaucratic minefield that it is today. That’s why reform is so crucial.

The ‘tail wagging the dog’ parties, that together attracted only  2 percent of the 2,257,336 votes cast in the 2011 general election, are preventing the government from actioning their mandated policy agenda – in spite of reaping the many rewards of coalition partnership. The Maori Party with 1.4 percent of the party vote (31,982 votes) and United Future with 0.6 percent of the party vote (13,443 votes) have waited for months to advise National that they will not be supporting their proposed RMA changes. With the support of only ACT, National is one vote short of a majority to enable it to carry out the planned reforms.

The Green Party, of course, strongly opposes any changes to the RMA. Not only have they threatened to repeal National’s amendments when they become part of a Green-Labour government, but they plan to considerably strengthen the country’s environmental controls. Given Labour’s new leader David Cunliffe described  National’s 2009 RMA changes to tree protection laws as a “chainsaw massacre”, it is likely he too will want to repeal any law changes should they become the government.

United Future’s Peter Dunne has based his objections to the proposed reforms on concerns raised by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the architect of the original Resource Management Act. Mr Dunne was the Associate Environment Minister under Sir Geoffrey when the RMA was first introduced into Parliament in 1990. Sir Geoffrey is concerned that the proposal to combine the existing principles section 6 (Matters of national importance) with section 7 (Other matters) into one non-hierarchical list in a new principles section 6 would weaken environmental protections and strengthen economic considerations. They claim that this will be very bad for New Zealand.

Here is the proposed new section 6 – see whether you think the principles are too weak:

6(1) In making the overall broad judgment to achieve the purpose of this Act, all persons exercising functions and powers under it in relation to managing the use, development and protection of natural and physical resources shall recognise and provide for the following matters:

(a) the preservation of the natural character of the coastal environment (including the coastal marine area), wetlands, and lakes and rivers and their margins, and the protection of them from inappropriate subdivision, use and development;

(b) the protection of specified outstanding natural features and landscapes from inappropriate subdivision, use and development;

(c) the protection of specified areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna;

(d) the value of public access to and along, the coastal marine area, wetlands, lakes and rivers;

(e) the relationship of Māori and their culture and traditions with their ancestral lands, water, sites, waahi tapu, taonga species and other taonga including kaitiakitanga;

(f) the protection of protected customary rights;

(g) the benefits of the efficient use and development of natural and physical resources;

(h) the importance and value of historic heritage;

(i) the impacts of climate change;

(j) the benefits of efficient energy use and renewable energy generation;

(k) the effective functioning of the built environment including the availability of land for
urban expansion, use and development;

(l) the risk and impacts of natural hazards;

(m) the efficient provision of infrastructure;

(n) areas of significant aquatic habitats, including trout and salmon;

6(2) For the avoidance of doubt section 6(1) above has no internal hierarchy.

The matters that are presently found in section 7, which are intended for deletion – because it is argued that they are already effectively encompassed in section 5 of the Act – are:

7(aa) the ethic of stewardship

7(c) the maintenance and enhancement of amenity values

7(d) intrinsic values of ecosystems

7(f) maintenance and enhancement of the quality of the environment

7(g) any finite characteristics of natural and physical resources.1

All in all, the purpose of these proposed changes to the RMA is to require decision-makers to have regard to a balance of environmental, social, economic and cultural values when considering resource management issues, rather than environmental values only.

The Maori Party joined United Future in opposing the proposed bill, not only echoing the claims that the changes would reduce environmental protection, but also arguing that they would undermine the traditional role of Maori. In a newspaper article, co-leader Tariana Turia wrote, “Kaitiakitanga is about guardianship and protection – effectively a way of managing the environment from a Maori point of view. We utilised the maramataka, the cycle of the moon, to decide when to plant and harvest – we hunted and fished as a food source – not as a sport and we took only what was needed. These practices enabled early Maori to sustain themselves whilst ensuring the environment was not pillaged. The connection to the resources and the environment was more than one of merely obtaining food for physical sustenance – it also reflected the spiritual connection with deities like Tane, Tangaroa and Rongo – the guardians of the forests, the waterways and cultivated foods for example.”2

In her article Ms Turia also makes it clear that she considers “effective” iwi participation in the planning process is not “one seat at the table”, but “50:50 co-governance”.

This is clearly where the Maori Party is directing their political pressure: an audacious grab for power through 50:50 co-governance rights. The question is will our political representatives continue to resist their advances?

The proposed RMA reforms cover a wide range of matters including streamlining iwi consultation to avoid costly litigation, introducing a disputes resolution process, limiting consent appeals to only those directly affected, improving Environment Court efficiency, fast-tracking simple consents, introducing greater transparency and accountability over council consent fees, combining council plans into a single document, requiring councils to identify a 10-year planning horizon for residential land supply, and ensuring central government provides clearer direction to councils through National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards.

The key issue is this: given the economy is struggling and unemployment is too high (particularly in the provinces), shouldn’t we expect our government to urgently address the country’s barriers to growth? With the RMA having become a brake on progress, surely restoring the balance between environmental protection and economic growth is exactly what any responsible government should do.


Do you agree the RMA has become a barrier to growth?  

Click HERE to see all poll results


  1. Ministry of the Environment, Improving our resource management system 
  2. Tariana Turia, Guardianship under threat