The Prime Minister made a little-noticed announcement last week that could have much louder repercussions in this year's election campaign. He said he did not have the numbers in Parliament to proceed with an important change to the Resource Management Act and would take the issue to the country. It is an important issue, going to the heart of the question: which is more important, the environment or the economy?
Reasonable people would probably say they are of equal importance and deserve equal consideration when any project is seeking resource management consent.
That is what the National and Act parties say, but it is not what the present law says. It gives priority to the maintenance of the environment.
National's other partners, the Maori Party and Peter Dunne, want that priority to remain. National has been trying to talk them around for the best part of a year. Without at least Mr Dunne's vote, the amending legislation could not be passed. He and the Maori Party must be confident their constituents agree that economic developments should not be allowed unless they do no unmitigated harm to natural and physical resources.
The act, dating from 1991, lists "matters of national importance" that are to be protected in any decision. It is a long list, with frequent additions over the years. It includes: the natural character of the coast, wetlands, lakes and rivers, outstanding natural features and landscapes, indigenous vegetation and habitats, Maori ancestral sites, historic heritage, amenity values, ecosystems, the quality of the environment, finite natural and physical resources, habitat of trout and salmon, the effects of climate change and the benefits of renewable energy.
The Government wants to add to the list consideration of economic benefits and property rights. It wants these to be given equal importance, not remain subservient to environmental values.
The moment it announced this intention, environmentalists sounded the alarm.
They said it was an attack on the foundations of a natural resource regime that had endured for a generation and had developed a settled case law. The "father" of the act, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, warned the change would "significantly and severely weaken the ability of the RMA to protect the natural environment and its recreational enjoyment by all New Zealanders".
The Fish & Game Council's chief executive said the act would be "completely undermined and basically turned into an economic development act". A legal opinion for the Environmental Defence Society said the introduction of economic considerations would introduce more uncertainty to consent procedures rather than simplify them.
If the RMA was working efficiently as it stands, these warnings might hold some water. But it is not. Even with priority given to environmental sustainability, decisions are taking too long. Development proposals are being held up for years and faced with discouraging costs. If economic benefits had to be given equal weight, delays are unlikely to be worse.
The Government is right to put this issue to the election, and should do so in general terms. The issue is bigger than house-building consents, highlighted by the Prime Minister this week and quickly neutralised by Labour's offer to support a bill limited to those provisions. Voters can decide whether the economy and the environment deserve equal consideration.
If the environment cannot meet that test, the country is poorer for the act's bias.
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