By Jenée Tibshraeny
The Resource Management Act has needed reforming from the day it was inked in 1991.
The law, designed to govern what we do with our land, water and air, has been tweaked so many times it’s become too much of a behemoth to be effective.
Property developers, environmentalists and those across the political spectrum generally share this view.
Everyone wants reform. The problem is, they all want reform to better protect what they value.
The reality is that any law or policy requires trade-offs. Yet the thing that separates the RMA is that the trade-offs required are over New Zealand’s most valued assets - from both monetary and ideological perspectives.
The identity of Maori in particular is linked to the environment.
Our environment is our food source. Agriculture and tourism are essentially the country’s breadwinners.
New Zealand’s housing stock is worth a whopping $1.1 trillion - nearly four times the value of the entire economy, or our annual gross domestic product.
When the stakes are this high, it’s no wonder successive governments have failed to get consensus to meaningfully change the RMA.
Will this change now that the Coalition Government has tasked a working group with making recommendations by mid-2020 on ways to change the law?
One couldn’t be blamed for being cynical by concluding no.
Parker won’t bring National into the fold
Political parties, on Wednesday's release of the draft terms of reference for the reform, didn’t need to wade too far into the divisive nitty-gritty of how to fix the RMA.
They could’ve pawned this off to the yet-to-be-formed working group and celebrated the fact an attempt was being made to combat a common enemy - the RMA.
Instead, they put their stakes in the ground, defining the values they wanted better protected through a law change.
With the battle lines drawn - albeit lightly - one can only imagine how much more entrenched they'll become, come mid-2020 when politicians have meaty recommendations to debate and an election to campaign for.
Environment Minister David Parker said he would “accept help” from anyone who was “willing to cooperate”, but wouldn’t go so far as to working more closely with the National Party than would otherwise be required under the normal parliamentary process.
“They’re not the government. They had nine years to fix it. They didn’t, so we’re getting on and doing it,” he said.
“We are the government. It’s our duty to govern and we’re governing.
“In respect of what happens after the next election - first and foremost I expect that we’ll win.
“Secondly, if there is a change of government, as there was between the drafting of the RMA and its passage back in 1991, it would fall to the next incoming government to finish the job.”
NZ Firsts’ position on Maori rights puts it at odds with other parties
Before we even consider the possibility of National putting its pride aside and finishing a job started by a Labour-led government, let's look at what the leader of Labour's coalition partner, New Zealand First said.
Winston Peters explicitly said he didn’t expect his party to be on the same page as Labour and the Greens when it came to RMA reform.
Having okayed the draft terms of reference for the RMA working group that Parker took to Cabinet, he then conceded to media he was willing to work with Parker.
Yet he stuck to a contentious position he took in 2016 that made him an unlikely bedfellow with National’s Don Brash.
Asked where Maori rights should sit in the RMA, Peters said: “We’re a country called New Zealand. We’ve got people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, and we are gender and colour-blind when it comes to resource management legislation.”
Put to him that the rights of Joe Public weren’t the same as the rights secured under the Treaty of Waitangi, Peters said: “Yes they are…
“I’ve got a rough idea of what the Maori people expect, and they expect the world to be fair and balanced towards them. They have never asked, unlike some of the radicals, for exclusive race-based privileges.”
Asked whether there was any point reviewing the RMA if the governing parties weren’t even on the same page, Peters said, “There’s still the National Party isn’t there?”
But he then turned around and said: “They had nine years and did nothing, and then they blamed New Zealand First for not getting anything through.”
National can’t play ball, so plays on the kiwi love affair with property
National is now big on RMA reform.
Attacking the Government for many of its solutions to addressing the housing crisis without coming up with other fixes, it's placing a lot of weight on the role the inept law has played in stifling housing development.
It’s drafting a new piece of resource management legislation itself, and while the party isn’t yet in a position to detail exactly what it would like reform to look like, its housing spokesperson Judith Collins is open about the values she believes need better protecting - those of property owners.
“The Government needs to give property owners their rights back and stop people manipulating the RMA to their advantage,” she said, undoubtedly mindful of that $1.1 trillion New Zealanders have tied up in housing.
“The RMA is no longer fit for purpose and is too easily gamed. One problem is businesses being able to stymie nearby business developments because they are anti-competitive.
“Another is developers trying to stop someone else's housing development from going ahead because they want to get their houses sold first, to get maximum value.”
Collins said property owners’ “rights” could be protected by the RMA more clearly defining how they should be "compensated" should those rights be undermined.
Challenged on the fiscal risks this could pose to already indebted councils, Collins pointed to the "fiscal risks" developers were exposed to.
She said National was open to working with the Government “if it can present sensible solutions that will deliver New Zealand the infrastructure it needs”.
However nowhere in her media statement did she comment on the need for stronger protections for the environment.
Meanwhile the Greens hoped the RMA review would “ensure that we prioritise the environment and protect quality of life, create liveable cities and protect nature for present and future generations”.
Co-Leader James Shaw specifically supported the proposal for the law to promote climate change mitigation.
The joys of MMP
Collins also made the point: “My concern is that by waiting so long to undertake this piece of work, the Government has left it too late in the electoral cycle to act on it. This suggests they aren’t confident of getting NZ First and the Greens on the same page.”
As per all the politicking detailed above, Collins has a point.
The Government walked away with egg on its face after it couldn’t form a consensus on extending the taxation of capital gains, as recommended by the Tax Working Group.
How would Labour fare going in to the next election if NZ First was again seen to be wielding a disproportionate amount of power?
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern can blame MMP all she likes, but the public doesn’t’ care.
If there’s an obvious problem that she fails to fix, then this falls back on her.
The Government knows this as much as Collins does, which is why they’re both keen to be seen to be doing something without making promises or spending political capital.
Collins’ bold headline-grabbing rhetoric on property owners’ rights aside, the country’s two largest parties have the most moderate views on how to manage our land, water and air.
Depending on how much power NZ First and the Greens have after the election, National could be Labour’s best bet at making change, and vice-versa.
Yet if bi-partisanship doesn’t surface this far out from an election, it most certainly won’t closer to the time.
Thereafter, the risk of ending up back at square one is even higher.
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