By Peter Dunne*
We are pretty good in New Zealand at passing groundbreaking legislation through our Parliament and then leaving it to moulder until some government decides it is not working and should be radically changed.
Seldom do we stop to look at whether the reason for the legislation not working as intended is not so much the legislation itself, as the way bureaucrats and successive governments have chosen to implement it. No, instead we adopt the “baby out with the bathwater” approach, and start all over again, assuring only that without fundamental changes to the way legislation is implemented, the same thing will happen all over again.
Two examples this week highlight the point – the Official Information Act and the Resource Management Act. Both were hailed as far sighted and world leading at the time of their passage, yet both now face the cool breeze of review, once again.
The Official Information Act 1982 introduced the then revolutionary concept that government information should be released to the public, unless there was good reason to withhold it, turning on its head the previous notion that all government information was secret and should be kept so. The Act’s principles still stand up well today, but, over time, problems have arisen with regard to the way requests for official information are handled, with too many instances of unacceptable delays in the processing of requests, or the restrictions on the type of information being released.
Most practitioners of the Act will say there is little wrong with its principles, but much wrong with the way it is administered that should be updated and changed. Yet, significant modification and updating still seem a long way off, with the government announcing a further delay of at last another three months before it decides whether there should be a review of the Act and the way it works, and despite a preliminary review attracting over 300 submissions calling for more transparency with official information.
At the other end of the scale, the government has announced a complete overhaul for the Resource Management Act 1991. This Act puts environmental sustainability at the core of economic development and replaced the previous mish-mash of more than 54 separate pieces of environmental and planning legislation. A point its critics, probably through sheer ignorance rather than wilful deception, keep overlooking.
However, it was launched in a vacuum in 1991, in part because the then National government did not want to give too much credit to its Labour predecessor for developing the legislation, and in part because of its own deep antipathy to regional government, which had been intended to play a significant role in the Act’s operation. Consequently, it has never really worked as intended, with central government over the years reluctant to issue any national policy statements, and regional and local governments left consequently struggling to find their proper role. It is little wonder that excessive bureaucracy, decision-making timidity and inconsistency have been the outcome. So now the Resource Management Act is blamed for everything from the housing crisis to climate change, and the knives are out for its replacement.
As with the Official Information Act, making the Resource Management Act work as intended would solve many of the problems associated with it. The previous government tried to do so, but it failed because it found that while attacking the Act and promising to gut its principles altogether was far more attractive to a section of its supporters, there was not a majority appetite in Parliament to do so.
Now the present government is promising a root and branch review of the Resource Management Act, although it is likely to be 2021 at the earliest before any real change proceeds. The Minister for the Environment, David Parker, at least seems cognisant of history, so is unlikely to want to cast aside the principles on which it was founded. But he is also likely to face major challenges keeping both the Greens and New Zealand First on side as the review proceeds, and will come under just the same pressure from development and primary production interests his National predecessors did to simply get rid of the Resource Management Act altogether. It may end up being all too difficult.
He would be on far safer political ground to make it clear from the outset that the principles of the Resource Management Act are to remain inviolate, but that the real focus of his reform programme will be to make the Act work the way it was originally intended. Such an approach is not only more prudent, but actually has a chance of succeeding and enduring.
Otherwise, some successor Minister in the next decade or so will have the same bright idea all over again.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.