Key now has the numbers to change the RMA, but it will be a test of single-party government under MMP

Let me ask this. Is the protection of New Zealand's natural environment more important than its economic development? Or are they equally important?

I know, too easy.

So try this. Must they be given equal consideration under the law that governs almost everything New Zealand industry can do?

I had assumed so, too. The vast majority of us, I suspect, have supposed the Resource Management Act, for all its drawn-out procedures, allowed economic benefits to be weighed against environmental costs.

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Not so. That became evident last year when the Government tried to write economic considerations into the act. An outcry erupted from non-government organisations. It came not just from the extremes of Greenpeace but from reasonable voices such as Gary Taylor's Environmental Defence Society and the Fish and Game Council.

The "father" of the RMA, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, weighed in with a warning that to give equal standing to economic development would upset nearly 25 years of case law under the act.

By implication, and sometimes admission, they told us environmental arguments could not compete with economic gains if they were given equal consideration.

Two of National's governing partners, Peter Dunne and the Maori Party, refused to support an amendment to the act, leaving the Government one vote short of the numbers to pass it.

Dunne, who held the crucial vote, held that National was breaking a 20-year consensus on environmental "sustainability".

"Over recent years," he wrote, "the debate about sustainable development has been assumed to have settled into a largely unarguable space. Economic development that does not deplete non-renewable resources or otherwise have adverse environmental impacts has become almost a given."

National, he said, wanted to replace sustainability with a balance between the environment and development.

"In other words, instead of being the platform on which economic decisions are made, the environment will become just one more factor to be taken into account."

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Well, yes. I wasn't aware the country had consensus on this subject and nor, I bet, were most people. We know the major parties have an unspoken consensus on economic fundamentals and Maori recognition, but these have been fairly obvious to the public and tacitly endorsed at elections.

How many knew we had agreed that economic projects would not be allowed if they "depleted a non-renewable resource" (coal, oil, minerals, land) or "otherwise have adverse environmental impacts"?

Obviously the present Government didn't know? It spent a year trying to talk Dunne and the Maori Party around before John Key announced in May he could not get the numbers to pass the bill. He said he would take the issue to the election, but he didn't.

Interestingly, neither did the other side. Labour and the Greens referred at times to a threat to the RMA, but did not explain it.

They probably feared sounding economically unreasonable as much as National feared to appear an environmental menace.

Whatever their respective reasons for keeping the issue below the public radar, it is academic now. The election has given National the numbers to pass the bill. It might not even need Act when the final count is known today.

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The change to the RMA is shaping up to be the first test of government by a single party under MMP.

Key is consensual by nature as well as political calculation. He knows his popularity rests in part on an absence of arrogance in his nature. He also knows that almost anything the Government does now without support across Parliament will be called arrogance by analysts and opponents.

But they will be equally harsh on the Government if it fails to do very much for fear of that criticism.

As the act stands, it requires decisions on consent application to protect specified "matters of national importance".

They are: the natural character of the coast, wetlands, lakes, rivers and their margins; public access to them; outstanding landscapes; significant plant and animal habitats; Maori ancestral lands, water, sites and taonga; historic heritage; customary rights.

These are not just to be taken into account. The Supreme Court has ruled they are "bottom lines" - non-negotiable. Development cannot be permitted unless it does no damage to these things.

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We might wonder what Auckland would be like today if the RMA's coastal and landscape protections had been in force before 1990. Would we have Tamaki Drive? Would there be a Harbour Bridge?

Gary Taylor wrote in the Herald this week, that National's legislative proposal would mean, "economic and environmental matters would compete for primacy. We all know what they would mean for the environment."

Well I don't. Environmental costs are usually obvious, economic gains are often speculative.

Under a different act, Conservation Minister Nick Smith was able to consider the economy when he turned down a tunnel and monorail for Fiordland not long ago. Nature, I think, can compete.