A constant in politics over the last couple of decades has been the National Party’s dislike and distrust of local communities making their own decisions about their own futures. National really does believe the Beehive knows best, despite a lot of obvious evidence to the contrary.
In recent years, this prejudice has manifest itself in many different areas (for example, debates about local health services and/or the location and number of local schools in places like Christchurch come to mind) but the most obvious and constant area has been that of environmental and resource management. The current debate about the future of the Resource Management Act needs to be seen in this light. National is determined to resist any attempt by regional communities to have any real say in major planning and environmental decisions that affect them.
A consistent pattern of central government intervention in local decisions has emerged in recent years. (National had been suspect in this area in previous times with the famous allegation that its paring back of the role of Regional Councils in resource management in the early 1990s was driven more by the prejudice of the then Local Government Minister against the way his local Council has treated a motel development application he had been involved in, than sound principle.) One of the first actions National took during its current term of office was to remove the power of general competence that had been previously delegated to local government, ostensibly on the grounds of preventing local government becoming too profligate in the expenditure of ratepayers’ money, but really more about stifling the capacity of Councils to act independently.
When Environment Canterbury (the Canterbury Regional Council) refused to play ball with central government over the allocation of waters rights for dairy intensification on the Canterbury Plains, the government stepped in and dumped the Council in 2010, and it will not be until 2019 that full local democracy is due to be restored. (Shades of Bainimarama in Fiji?) And then there is the notorious section 360 of National’s current Bill to change (hardly reform) the Resource Management Act which gives the Minister for the Environment a virtual power of override on just about everything. A few weeks ago, once more consistent with the bulldozer approach to local autonomy, National declared that henceforth all decisions about the application of the 1080 poison would be made nationally, and no longer at a local level. The apparent justification was that a national decision making process would allow for much greater consistency and certainty, which, while plausible at a superficial level, belies the real reason. National could not simply afford the risk of rural and provincial communities (still its heartland support base) making their own decisions against the application of 1080, and contrary to stated government policy. Most recently, National has confirmed what it has been threatening for some years that, if any region (Hawkes Bay is the immediate example) declares itself to be GE free and markets its produce internationally as GE free, the government will step in to stop them doing so.
There is a strong case for amending and updating a number of the processes of the Resource Management Act, with every party in Parliament agrees with, and which could have been achieved relatively easily about four years ago had National chosen to go down that path. The simple reason National’s plans have faltered to date is because of its wider history in this area, and a deep concern that, based on its past, its real agenda goes way beyond having effective resource management law and is much more about controlling the scope and practice of regional government.
They say that leopards do not change their spots. In this case, the spots on the leopard are far more striking than usual. It would take a mighty change of heart on National’s part to satisfy the concerns about its real agenda. Only a naïve optimist or a fool would dare think this may happen.