1 October 2013
Resource management issues are very prominent on the current political agenda, and reveal a great deal about the National Party’s attitude to the environment.
Over recent years, 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, and, as a consequence, New Zealand has been quite happy to bask in the self-awarded title of 100% Pure.
But recent moves by the National Party suggest that broad consensus of the last two decades in no longer that given, and faces strong challenges.
It is not just the Ruataniwha Dam issue, or the proposed changes to the principles of the Resource Management Act, or even allowing prospecting for precious metals on certain conservation lands, although these are all important individual issues. Rather, it is the emerging philosophy behind them that is the real concern.
There are legitimate gripes about the application of certain aspects of environment law which National has clearly tired of trying to rectify. So, instead, it is trying to shift fundamentally the focus of the debate. No longer, according to National, is it to be about sustainability, but rather about the 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.
National justifies this shift on its “unyielding” focus on jobs, which many will regard as positive. However, that contains echoes of an eerie throw back to the Muldoon Government’s “Think Big” policy of the late 1970s, sold on the basis of “410,000 jobs for your children and your children’s children”. That mantra became an excuse for some of the most Draconian development legislation we have ever seen – like the infamous National Development Act.
In the event, very few of the jobs materialised, and we ended up with a massive debt burden we have struggled to pay off over subsequent decades.
So when I hear of projects like Ruataniwha being justified primarily on the basis of the jobs to be created; or Resource Management Act changes being needed to make it easier to build cheaper houses, I become deeply suspicious at the simplicity of the argument. It is beginning to sound like footsteps down a pathway we have travelled once before.
The Resource Management Act was born out of the development excesses of the late 1970s and early 1980s. While it has generally done its job well over the years, its processes are not inviolate and do need to be refreshed and updated from time to time. But its principles are our safeguard against over-zealous governments mortgaging our environment to the future, and should therefore be left to lie.