National’s challenges over the Kermadecs Marine Sanctuary are a potential foretaste of what is to come with its ongoing attempts to change the Resource Management Act.
Three years ago, with much fanfare, the then Environment Minister announced to the National Party Conference a slew of proposed changes to the principles and practices of the Resource Management Act, only to discover somewhat shamefacedly subsequently the basic reality of politics – make sure you have the numbers first. National did not have the support from its support partners, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture to gut the Resource Management Act the way it wanted, so the proposal was shelved. A further attempt, after the 2014 election, similarly hit roadblocks, first when National lost the overall majority it briefly enjoyed prior to the counting of special votes, and second, worse was to come, when it lost the Northland by-election, meaning it could no longer rely on just ACT’s vote to pass critical legislation. Since then, National has needed either UnitedFuture, as well as ACT, or the Maori Party to do so.
During 2014, National attempted to woo both the Maori Party and UnitedFuture on resource management changes, all the time taking for granted ACT’s support, which proved to be a near fatal blunder. Along the way, UnitedFuture’s discussions came to an end when it became clear National’s proposed Ministerial veto procedures could easily be a stealthy way of subverting the Resource Management Act’s principles, without having to specifically amend them. Worse, ACT simply tired of having its support just assumed. So, both parties decided to oppose National’s legislation, leaving it reliant on the Maori party for any further support.
The Maori Party’s price was more Iwi involvement in the allocation of water rights, to which National agreed reluctantly, just to get the legislation introduced. But the Maori Party has made it clear that it regarded National’s early concessions as no more than a downpayment, and that its future support would hinge on further private agreements it had with the Minister regarding Iwi involvement being incorporated into the Bill. All of which has left National in a self-made quandary. It feels it has gone as far as it can already, perhaps too far for some of its more conservative supporters, in its concessions to the Maori Party, and that if it concedes more it may well alienate those supporters’ backing. On the other hand, if it loses the Maori Party’s support, it will not be able to proceed with any resource management changes, so upsetting its developer base.
Against that background, earlier this year, ACT and UnitedFuture made proposals to National on ways of resolving the looming impasse and meeting their own concerns about the Bill in a way which could lead to their supporting it, and making the government less reliant on the Maori Party. However, while those discussions were cordial enough, nothing has eventuated in terms of a government response, so the position remains one where the Maori Party’s decisions will determine what happens to resource management changes. All of which has a familiar ring to it when it comes to looking at the Kermadecs Sanctuary issue.
For its part, UnitedFuture strongly supports the proposed sanctuary, as do most political parties, so its ultimate fate is not an issue. The point is much more one of process and relationships with support parties.
As Prime Minister, John Key has been consistently especially sensitive, as has his Deputy, Bill English, to ensuring and maintaining good relationships with support partners, and, generally speaking, has been very successful in doing so. (Indeed, maintaining that careful balance probably explains National’s reluctance to adopt the ACT/UnitedFuture resource management reform proposals.) But, unfortunately the importance of those relationships is not always appreciated or understood by others in government, who seem to view the support parties as just an automatic extension of National’s votes in the House.
Messrs Key and English are far too astute to let the current Kermadecs row lead to the Maori Party walking out of its confidence and supply agreement, and despite the current chest-beating, it is really going way too far to suggest that it is a remotely serious possibility. But the Prime Minister and his Deputy will be using the incident to reinforce to colleagues the importance of maintaining good relationships with support partners, especially since the Prime Minister has made it clear that his preferred post-election option will be to carry on with his existing arrangements, rather than be forced to lie prone and impotent before the historically unreliable and serially quixotic New Zealand First, who in perhaps another more unpleasant foretaste proved as much again this week.
How the government handles both the Kermadecs and resource management issues might well prove decisive to its long-term desired outcome. A prudent and long kick to touch until more rational and balanced solutions can be found to both would therefore be in the government’s best long-term interests.