Wednesday, 21 January 2015

22 January 2015

Two acts of political crassness marked the holiday break.

The first was the befittingly silly comment from Ron Mark about putting shots across the bows of foreign fishing vessels illegally poaching toothfish in the southern ocean.

The second was Nick Smith’s speech to his Nelson constituents. This was no mere putting of shots across the bows of the Resource Management Act, but the launching of a full-scale assault.

National has long had the RMA in its sights. Even before it passed the Act in 1991 elements in National (notably then Local Government Minister Warren Cooper smarting over restrictions imposed on developing his motel complex in Queenstown) have been opposed to requiring development to be undertaken in an environmentally sustainable way. But, to date, wiser heads have usually prevailed.

Initially, that seemed to be likely outcome this time around, with National appearing to have taken aboard the criticism its 2014-14 reform attempts received. The Prime Minister spoke of “moderate and pragmatic” reforms – usually code for watering down the more extreme enthusiasms of some of his colleagues – but all that seemed to fly out the window this week. (One charitable, but probably far-fetched, interpretation of Dr Smith’s speech is that it is an elaborately Machiavellian attempt to prove to his more gung-ho colleagues just how difficult carpet-bombing the RMA will be in practice, and is really a carefully disguised plea for moderation. As Churchill once observed in a similar situation, if that is the case, it is a very effective disguise!)

All of which is a huge pity. National’s blunderbuss attempts to obliterate the RMA, egged on by ACT which fears National is not going far enough, are obscuring the vast areas of agreement for change across the political spectrum, upon which a responsible package of change could be developed.

There is little disagreement that some of the RMA’s processes are cumbersome and outmoded, and a break on responsible development, and a solid Parliamentary majority could be deftly and quickly assembled for a package of measures to address these. That has not changed since National first began its latest RMA assault in 2013, and it is a genuine mystery why it has not taken the opportunity to build such a majority before now. After all, if the “crisis” is as pressing as National keeps saying, its all or nothing approach seems a very curious way to proceed.

For the record, UnitedFuture’s position is clear and unchanging. We are prepared to work with National and other parties – like the Maori Party and possibly even Labour if Andrew Little’s initial comments mean anything – on changes to streamline the processes of the RMA to make them more responsive and efficient, and not an unnecessary impediment to responsible development. But we will not support any changes to the principles of the RMA that have the effect of weakening the environmental protections it enshrines. The RMA is not just one piece of the development jigsaw as its critics would wish, but the fundamental backdrop. That principle must remain inviolate.

From my perspective, the door is ajar for further discussion, but I get the sense that National is now less inclined to that, having tucked away the ACT vote to secure its majority. Suggestions I have heard this week that National will only talk to support partners if it can be certain in advance that it will get their agreement reinforce that view.

That was this week. The Prime Minister returns next week and it will be interesting to see if “moderate and pragmatic” returns to the RMA agenda as a consequence. For the sake of the environment and future generations, I hope so.       






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