You’re always fighting the last war.
The problems in the Resource Management Act (RMA) the Government is trying to solve through its reforms, legislatively embodied by the Natural and Build Environments Bill and Spatial Planning Bill, reopen problems the RMA was itself trying to solve.
In the 1970s, in response to skyrocketing oil prices, the Muldoon government embarked on a series of nation-building industrial infrastructure projects, underpinned by equally nation-building electricity generation projects - retrospectively known as “Think Big”.
Building massive dams - even in the ‘70s and ‘80s - was no easy task. New Zealand suffered under a Balkanised resource management system, which was spread across dozens of occasionally-conflicting pieces of legislation.
The government’s solution was not to untangle this Gordian Knot of planning, but to cut through it with the National Development Act, which gave Cabinet the ability to suspend 28 different acts of Parliament to fast-track any national development project.
The bill also provided that the validity of Orders in Council made under it could not be challenged or called into question by any court.
Labour MP Geoffrey Palmer, then in Opposition and not yet a Sir, thought the bill particularly odious, writing later that it was an example of Muldoon’s Machiavellian logic that the ends justified the means; Cabinet should not override Acts of Parliament. Palmer fought the bill so hard in Parliament that he developed kidney stones.
The Fourth Labour Government repealed the act in 1986, and, by then the Minister for the Environment, Palmer embarked upon wholesale resource management reform - ironically this began with an expensive consultation, partly financed by abolishing the Ministry of Works. Expensive consultation, it seems, was imprinted into the DNA of the legislation at conception.
What emerged was the Resource Management Act. In its original form, it repealed 54 different acts and created a single national system for how we administer the nation’s resources (in its original form mined minerals were also included - although these were spun out after National took office in 1990).
The problem with the RMA is that regardless of the way it was designed, its administration by central and local government has led to a sclerotic, bothersome planning process, which has enabled a small number of people to stymie development, often against what might be deemed the national interest.
Governments have become increasingly frustrated with the RMA’s localistic approach to development, and have frequently sought ways of circumventing it, whether through fast-track legislation, or quick fixes like Special Housing Areas. The “cutting red tape” logic of the Muldoon approach no longer seemed like such a bad idea - although no recent government, it must be said, took that approach to such sinister lengths.
On the other side, the RMA’s supporters acknowledge it hasn’t adequately protected the environment.
Hearing submissions over David Parker’s two bills replacing the RMA concluded last week, and the Environment Committee will shortly report back to Parliament.
Submitters warned the reforms centralised control to the extent that they ignored local voices.
Local Government New Zealand said that the new regional approach, designed to simplify planning by making key decisions earlier in the process, could see an imbalance in the power between rural and urban councils. In some areas, a large metropolitan council might be overpowered by smaller rural councils - in other areas, the opposite might be true.
In seeking to simplify planning by forcing councils to the table together, the legislation, they fear, elides the very real and important distinctions between these councils.
On the other side, people with an interest in large infrastructure fear the new legislation’s tougher line on environmental damage - which leans less heavily on “mitigation” of environmental damage than the existing RMA, ditching this in favour of sterner “bottom lines” on what sorts of environmental change is and isn’t allowed - will make it too difficult to build the infrastructure we desperately need.
Ironically, this infrastructure is of the very complicated, environmentally-contentious kind that the much hissed-at National Development Act tried to empower.
A report delivered by Transpower in Labour’s last term noted that the electrification of the country’s energy use, swapping people to electric cars and the like, might require as much as a doubling in renewable energy generation.
And an Infrastructure Commission Report released last week noted that climate change-supporting infrastructure (not just electricity generation, but transport infrastructure too) would not just need to be consented, but also built relatively quickly if it is going to reduce emissions to hit the Net Zero 2050 target.
Consenting times and cost, the very problem the National Development Act was trying to solve, were put in the gun by the Infrastructure Commission, which warned that an effective and reformed system needed to be fully in place by 2028 or New Zealand would be unable to build its way to hitting carbon targets, and end up with a multi-billion dollar carbon bill.
Meridian Energy’s submission to the committee warned that despite the intentions of the RMA reforms to “support efficient renewable energy development” by improving upon the “too litigious and inefficient” consenting process, the Government’s reforms “take a step in the wrong direction”.
That was because they put “natural values ahead of climate change” - protecting specific environments instead of the environment in aggregate.
Parliament’s Environment Select Committee will need to find a way to answer that difficult question before the bills are returned to Parliament in the coming months.
Fixing the RMA is so utterly complicated it could easily fall to Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ reprioritisation axe if it is seen to occupy excessive political bandwidth. It’s unwieldy, fiendishly difficult, and the only visible payoff will be years in the future.
Opposition groups are already lining themselves up against the reforms, with the Taxpayers’ Union drawing comparisons with the frozen Three Waters reform (a stretch, given one of the most unpopular things about Three Waters - co-governance - doesn’t make an appearance in the new resource management regime).
One important factor in what the Government decides to do will be what National decides to do. Its RMA reform spokesman Chris Bishop has described the reforms as “failing”, but has avoided taking a position on what National would do in office. Would it repeal them and start again?
“National is reserving its position on the reforms but there is a strong case that the Government should seriously consider going back to the drawing board,” Bishop said in a recent press release.
National is in more of a bind than Labour, which can push the reforms through without making any political compromises with the Greens (or NZ First, whom they would have depended on last term).
National has no such luxury.
If it decides there’s something to like in the reforms, National might very well decide to keep the new legislation if it wins the election, but tweak it to blunt whatever National finds objectionable (there are plenty of reasonable examples from select committee submissions).
This would replay the passage of the original RMA, which was not passed before Labour lost office in 1990. National’s Environment Minister Simon Upton kicked Palmer’s bill to a working group, which recommended small changes that were then incorporated and passed.
National’s problem with embarking on wholesale reform is that if there is one area in which it and the Act party butt heads more than any other, it’s resource management. This is particularly an issue for Bishop, who is a passionate defender of the RMA amendment legislation of 2021 that enabled urban infill - one of National’s singular legislative achievements from its term in Opposition.
The only party to oppose that legislation was Act.
National does want to reform the RMA, and ran on a “repeal and replace” policy at the 2020 election, but it’s unnerved by the prospect of reforming the RMA with Act in the passenger seat. This constrains its ability to truly take the fight to Labour over its proposal.
That gives Parker much-needed cover as his reforms enter their final stage.