By Bernard Hickey
The Government is facing an embarrassing parliamentary block to one of the key planks of its economic growth agenda.
Its usual coalition partners, the Maori Party and United Future, said on Wednesday they would not vote for the government's reforms to the Resource Management Act, arguing they could not support its plans to emphasise economic development rather than environmental protection.
“The changes do far more than rebalance the Act to make consenting procedures more efficient. We say the changes to remove emphasis on the ‘maintenance and enhancement of the quality of the environment’ fundamentally rewrite the Act and put a spanner in the works of the legal system, that will take years of litigation to fix up,” said Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia and United Future Leader Peter Dunne in a rare joint statement.
They said they had written to Environment Minister Amy Adams to detail their concerns, in particular around the combination of Parts 6 and 7 of the act, which downgrades environmental protection as the primary purpose of the act and makes it equivalent to economic development.
National has only 59 members in the 121 member parliament, including the speaker, and needs the support of Maori, United Future, ACT and Independent MP Brendan Horan to overcome the opposition of Labour (34), the Green Party (14), New Zealand First (7) and Mana (1). If Maori and United Future vote against the RMA reforms then the Opposition would have 61 votes to a National-ACT-Horan combination of 60.
She is currently in San Francisco helping to promote New Zealand technology companies in events surrounding the America's Cup. The surprise announcement by United Future and Maori appeared to catch the government offguard. The government has yet to respond.
Turia said proposed changes to Part 2 of the act undermined the whole purpose of the act.
Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell said sections 6 and 7 reflected the Maori principle that people were stewards of the natural environment, rather than owners.
"The legislation should not be dealing with proprietorship, and we understand and support tangata whenua groups who believe merging these sections will undermine their role and responsibilities as kaitiaki to maintain and enhance the quality of the environment," he said.
Dunne said New Zealand's environment had worsened by almost every measure in the last 20 years and the proposed changes to make economic development easier would make it worse.
“I do not accept that commercial interests should override the environmental principles of the Resource Management Act," he said.
“While we both agree that there could be useful improvements made in tidying up the process issues within the legislation, the changes to Part Two will create a level of uncertainty which will be counter-productive.”
The decision by Maori and United Future appeared to give New Zealand First some leverage to ask for some concessions to garner its support in parliament, but NZ First Conservation spokesman Andrew Williams appeared to come out all guns blazing against the reforms.
“The Government’s changes give big business a blank cheque to mine and exploit National Parks without any thought for future generations," Williams said. He was reacting to a report by Geoffrey Palmer for Fish and Game on the RMA reforms and proposals for freshwater management.
“The emphasis on ‘minimum bottom lines’ for freshwater leave the situation wide open for business and other interests to turn our rivers and streams into drains and sewers. Lakes will become cess ponds and the coastline will be covered with oil slicks if these people are not controlled," he said.
“New Zealand is a place of great beauty, blessed with natural resources and the protection of the environment must be a national priority," he said.
“New Zealand First supports streamlining some process aspects of the RMA but not the legalised vandalism this Government stands for."
Winston Peters also took the opportunity to criticise Maori and United Future, saying they had "quite happy to let the Government wreck the environment with earlier changes to the RMA and their stand has come a bit late to help anyone."
But he said NZ First would not be making any comment just yeton the Government’s latest proposals to change the Resource Management Act.
“We have this old-fashioned policy that it’s best to actually read the legislation and discuss it at caucus before deciding a position,” he said.
Labour's Environment spokeswoman Maryan Street said the Government planned to change the fundamental purpose of the Resource Management Act under the guise of streamlining processes.
“Labour is not against speeding up the approval process when it doesn’t compromise environmental protections. But it’s a different story when it does, and we will repeal any legislation this Government passes that weakens current safeguards," Street said.
The Green Party's spokeswoman Eugenie Sage said National should drop the reforms.
“The National Government should ditch its proposals which attack the heart of the RMA and its sustainable management purpose and principles. National has not been honest about the intent of its changes and we congratulate the Maori and United Future Parties for recognising what these changes will do," Sage said.
(Updated with Parliamentary voting lineups, Labour, NZ First, Green comments)