The Government's draft reform of the Resource Management Act is vague and vacuous, but its intent is stoking fear throughout the country.
Those becalmed in lockdown could do worse than swap their jigsaw puzzles for Parliament's fiendish three-dimensional version, the reform of the Resource Management Act (RMA).
Online hearings are under way into the draft of a new law, which will have to mesh in with a companion law on climate change and with numerous other not-quite-finished reforms, including water management, local government and housing acceleration.
Confoundingly, what's being looked at here is an "exposure draft" of the Natural and Built Environments Act (NBEA), which means it's at a stage where vital pieces of the puzzle are not yet included. So far it's mostly sky.
The environment select committee hearings therefore also offer linguistics experts a unique chance to measure lack of specificity in politicians, bureaucrats and experts. This may be the least specific talkfest in Parliament's history.
To say that few submitters can figure out what the NBEA will do, who it will be done by, or to, and who will check that it has been done would be a wicked understatement.
The number of times the self-protectively vague preposition "around" is used, in place of more exacting words, such as "of", "to", "for", "from" and "about", is off the scale.
Labour's Angie Warren-Clark can be excused for five "arounds" in a single question during the hearings. She couldn't ask questions directly "about" anything in the bill because, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there's no there there.
A local-body legal consultant called the legislation "vacuous" and "a morass of verbs" with multiple potential meanings. A planner fretted that the bill mandates 16 responsibilities to do things for which limits and targets are yet to be set, to be carried out by agencies seldom specified, using resources of which the provenance is utterly opaque.
Yet the legislation could hardly be more important, which is why Parliament has taken the almost unheard-of step of debating it early, even in this maddeningly vague form. The law will constrain what's allowed to be done with, to, for and, yes, even around every bit of land and waterway, including the privately owned.
"This cuts across every property right in the country," Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton told MPs. "It cuts across the position of Māori … the quarter-acre section holder at the back of Gisborne … across absolutely everything. It'll be litigated."
And this is where the political rubber meets the road in what may have to be some scary handbrake turns. The NBEA and all the other mega-reforms under way hinge substantially on stopping people doing things they've always been allowed to do – in this bill's case, polluting and displacing the natural environment. The reforms will also mean others can force owners to do things they don't want to do with their land.
As Upton also advised MPs, who regularly ask rather plaintively about what compensation and phase-in time there might be for the new restrictions, the baseline should henceforth be that no one has the right to pollute, full stop. His tacit corollary: why should we compensate people who are doing harm?
Growing anxiety about who will bear the pain of all this far-reaching reform has turbo-charged the Act Party's polling. That's no skin off Labour's nose so far, but as more people realise how much the changes will affect them personally, potentially with no compensation, the Government may find itself on the defensive.
Two current kerfuffles illustrate in microcosm how unfair and unwieldy these measures could become. One is Overseer, a data-based, real-time farm-pollution-management scheme used for several years to protectively restrict farm activity, which has just been confirmed as inaccurate. All that expense and effort and no one knows whether it moved the pollution dial up or down.
Then there are the Central Auckland businesses dying because of City Rail Link disruption, for whom help has only just been announced. Should a small, blameless group pay with their livelihoods to benefit the majority?
Extrapolate these situations to a national-policy scale and it could become Labour's do-it-yourself defeat kit.
The Government should be carefully noting the submissions' most common question: "What would a just transition look like?" For many environmental restrictions, there will also be an economic penalty, not just to individuals but the entire economy. Unless New Zealanders think the new regimes are fair, the pain evenly and fairly borne and the achievements worth the upheaval, this package will be political dynamite for the Opposition's deployment.
Naturally, local government took the chance to lobby "around" its future funding. Councils are already beside themselves at the Government wanting to repossess their water assets. The rebooted RMA would put new and ever more exacting environmental- and land-management tasks on to local bodies, which already struggle with their existing responsibilities.
Veteran environmentalist Guy Salmon urged the Government to revitalise local government before landing the new RMA on it. He tactfully spoke "around" the issue of councils' perceived relevance and competence, instancing the vanishingly small name recognition of council leaders. Unless figures of "real heft" led councils, he said, it would be hard to build the necessary public support for massive and difficult change.
Another conundrum giving submitters severe imagination outages is how on earth the Government's new imperatives for councils to zone more housing land would chime with the NBEA, whose headline purpose is to stop the land being despoiled by that sort of thing. Currently, it takes about 10 years to free up a "greenfield" housing site, never mind indefinite waits for consent, construction and requisite infrastructure. The NBEA's steadily reducing limits to pollution and environmental disturbance will surely make new housing harder to zone.
Still, as Upton said, it's impractical to expect an environmental-protection law to do anything other than protect the environment. It's for other legislation, and for Parliament, to decide how far environmental parameters should be traded against issues such as housing and soil protection.
Perhaps the most vital missing jigsaw piece is accessibility. The RMA has always been the preserve of well-off people who want to do something and well-off people who want to stop them – a household synonym for costly red tape rather than a vital protectant that anyone might invoke.
A final warning: to follow this debate is to get a permanent Beach Boys earworm: "Round round, get around, I get around … "