Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Deep-sea law change debated

Photo / Greenpeace / Dave Lashlie
Photo / Greenpeace / Dave Lashlie

A controversial law change which would limit protest near deep-sea oil and gas operations has been debated for the first time in a heated Parliamentary session.

Opposition MPs speaking at the committee stage of the Crown Minerals Bill focused their criticism on Energy Minister Simon Bridges' amendment, which would introduce jail sentences or heavy fines for protestors who intentionally damaged or interfered with vessels or exploration sites outside New Zealand's territorial limits. It also gave the Defence Force power to board protesters' ships and arrest them.

The amendment passed last night by 61 votes to 59, with support from National, Act and United Future.

A petition opposing the law change and signed by green groups and individuals including former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer had gathered 10,000 signatures since being launched on Tuesday. The petition challenged both the impingements on the right to peaceful protest and the absence of public input in the law change.

Mr Bridges' supplementary order paper was not considered by a select committee, where public submissions were made, and had not been vetted by the Attorney-General for potential human rights breaches.

In the House yesterday, the Green Party sought leave to have the amendment considered by a select committee, but this attempt was turned down.

Labour energy spokeswoman Moana Mackey slammed the decision to table the law change on an Easter Sunday, two weeks after a select committee reported back on the bill.

"What was the minister afraid of that he needed to hold on to this, keep it secret until the select committee had reported back to the House? We know the answer for this - it's an utter dog of an [amendment]."

Energy Minister Simon Bridges has argued that his predecessor Phil Heatley had signalled the law change in the first reading of the bill in September.

Ms Mackey argued that new mining ventures were so important to Government's economic vision that it was under pressure to recklessly change legislation to meet this goal. She also questioned the decision to limit the scope of the law change to activists' ships and protests against the oil industry, and not extend it to all vessels and operations in the deep seas.

Brazilian mining company Petrobras was temporarily forced to stop its surveying in the Raukumara Basin because of interference by a flotilla of protesters from an East Coast iwi. It has since withdrawn its exploration of the region.

Labour voted for the bill at the first reading, but opposed it at the second reading because it was too radical.

Parliament was to consider several amendments to the bill last night.

Green MP Catherine Delahunty tabled an amendment to prevent mineral exploration on New Zealand's highest-value conservation land. It would prevent the granting of permits or access arrangements to mining companies in Schedule 4 areas.

Government has said that it permitted exploration on this land because there were other benefits from surveying besides mining, and any mining permits that had been granted were for "hobby-type", recreational mining.

Attorney General Chris Finlayson dismissed the concerns raised by the group including Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Dame Anne Salmond as "hyperbolic" and "politically inspired."

He said the amendment did not stifle the right to protest, but made it an offence if that protest resulted in damage or interference.

"That is why I believe that, great people though they are, Sir Geoffrey and Dame Anne have got it wrong and their statements about the amendment breaching international law or attacking our democratic freedoms is just plain wrong."

He also mounted a sarcastic attack on the credibility of Sir Geoffrey and Dame Anne, describing Dame Anne as the author of "a very good book about Captain Cook which clearly qualified her to talk about the high seas."

He saved his worst for Sir Geoffrey saying he was relieved Sir Geoffrey had finally recovered his "constitutional voice" after staying silent when the Foreshore and Seabed Act and the Electoral Finance Act passed.

He went on to describe Sir Geoffrey lecturing at university as "acting like a raving Jehovah, wandering over desks because he was more concerned with creating an impression than teaching at times."

Debate on the bill would resume this afternoon.

- NZ Herald

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