Environmental groups are calling the Government’s proposal to introduce a new bill to “fast track” consents part of its “war on nature”, with the potential to bypass environmental protections.
Infrastructure Minister Chris Bishop and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones unveiled the plan two weeks ago, saying they would create a whole new “fast track” consenting process contained in its standalone piece of legislation.
But environmental groups Environmental Defence Society, WWF-New Zealand, Greenpeace Aotearoa and Forest & Bird say the proposal should concern all New Zealanders, enabling ministers to “unilaterally approve new development and commercial projects anywhere in the country with little to no oversight”.
“No community will be safe from potentially life-changing developments suddenly happening in their neighbourhood,” a statement from the groups read.
The new scheme would draw up a list of projects that will be the first to have their consents approved and conditions set by an expert panel. It will also create a process that allows ministers to approve projects, essentially granting that project’s consent, before referring it to an expert panel which would only be able to attach conditions to the consent. The panel would have only “limited ability” to decline the consent.
Greenpeace Aotearoa CEO Russel Norman said while the public voted for a change of Government, they didn’t vote for more pollution in rivers, mines on conservation land and being excluded from “having a say on protecting the places they care about”.
“The new Government has launched war on nature and this bill is part of it,” Norman said.
Jones, as Infrastructure Minister in coalition with Labour in 2020 helped to introduce the first “fast track” scheme. This was then adopted by then-Environment Minister David Parker who wrapped it into his RMA reforms.
That scheme allowed ministers to refer projects to an expert panel, which would have the final say over whether the consent would be granted.
The statement said Bishop had given environmental groups just two weeks to respond to a general outline of what the bill would contain.
“This is a completely inadequate process and time frame given the major constitutional and environmental issues the bill raises,” the groups said.
It added that the proposed bill is being touted as the solution to lengthy consent processes, but a letter sent by Bishop in January suggested the Government is looking to go much further.
“The Bill has the potential to bypass environmental protections, not just under the Resource Management Act, but also potentially under conservation laws”.
“This means minsters having sweeping powers to approve mines, aquaculture, hydro schemes, irrigation schemes, pretty much anything, with the sweep of a hand,” the statement read.
Furthermore, Bishop had said only people directly affected by a project would be able to have their say.
“This means the general public, including those with expertise on environmental matters, would be prevented from providing input or opposing developments,” read the statement.
Environmental Defence Society chief executive Gary Taylor said it’s a blow to democracy that community voices would not be heard, even when the development in question could have impacts far beyond individuals directly affected.
“The ministerial decision-making proposed is a gross misuse of power.
“Decisions on major projects should be made by independent panels, based on evidence gathered from all interested parties and experts, not by individual ministers. The potential for conflicts of interest and personal bias is concerning.”
Labour’s environment spokeswoman Rachel Brooking said the fact so much power now rested with ministers meant the new scheme had “Muldoonist” overtones, allowing ministers to make political decisions about which projects could get consented. She said this raised important questions over the level of influence political donors could have over consenting decisions.
“What are the interests of those ministers, and who is influencing those ministers to get these things through? Are we going to see cigarette factories?” Brooking joked.
Bishop said the fact the scheme had its genesis with Labour meant Labour had little right to attack it.
“The new fast track consenting regime is built on the existing fast track process, which was put in place by the previous Labour government, so it’s a bit ridiculous for Labour to try to call it ‘Muldoonist’. The simple fact is that this regime is going to make it easier and faster to build the things New Zealand needs while also protecting Treaty settlements and our environment.”
WWF-New Zealand CEO Dr Kayla Kingdon-Bebb said slashing the environmental checks and balances currently in place is just another nail in the coffin for the country’s wildlife.
“New Zealand has traditionally been one of the least corrupt countries in the world, but this ill-conceived legislation will pave the way for ministers to approve pet-projects without proper scrutiny and give private developers the green-light to wreak havoc on our environment.”
Benjamin Plummer is an Auckland-based reporter who covers breaking news. He has worked for the Herald since 2022.
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