The Greens’ statement on RMA reform is the first clear, leadership-endorsed sign of what it will and won’t support in a second Labour-Green government, writes Pattrick Smellie for BusinessDesk.
Throughout the current parliamentary term, the Greens have been very well-behaved. Co-leader James Shaw’s brief and unhappy attempt to hold ministers to ransom over government funding for a private ‘green’ school was a ghastly mistake. But it appears simply to have become a teachable moment for Shaw – as opposed to NZ First, which has made such tactics a pattern of behaviour which the electorate appears ready to shun.
Poll after poll now shows NZ First either failing to return to parliament at all, or being irrelevant to the formation of the next government if it does scrape in.
On the centre-right, the path to a National Party-led government is extremely tortuous and assumes not only would NZ First work with National and vice versa, but that Act would join such a set-up too. Act isn’t even very keen on National. Its stated preference is to sit on the cross-benches rather than join a government in either a formal coalition, such as NZ First currently has with Labour, or even the weaker “confidence and supply” arrangement that exists currently between Labour and the Greens.
In other words, National could be lumped with trying to form a very weak minority government, even if it could cobble together a theoretical majority.
On the centre-left, by comparison, the only relevant question is whether Labour will gain a majority in its own right for the first time since MMP voting began in 1996, or whether it will need the Greens to command a majority in the 120-seat parliament.
By the end of last week, and on the strength of three public political polls in less than a fortnight, it was clearly odds-on that Labour will indeed need the Greens.
Greens to Labour: we’ll matter
That is what makes last week’s statement from the Greens in response to Labour’s Resource Management Act reform policy so interesting. For the first time, here were the Greens making a clear, leadership-endorsed statement of what they would and would not support in a Labour-Green administration.
“The Green Party is clear that the current RMA is past its used-by date and needs reform,” said environment spokesperson Eugenie Sage. “However, it is absolutely essential that the Green Party is able to guide these reforms alongside Labour, to ensure that development does not come at the expense of our precious natural heritage, or the ability of the public to have their say.”
RMA fast-track legislation passed recently to accelerate shovel-ready infrastructure and boost the post-Covid economy had shown “that Labour was willing to deprioritise environmental protections and public input into decisions,” said Sage.
“The reforms must improve environmental outcomes, not just uphold the status quo. We need to shift to an approach where we seek to undo environmental damage, not just stop it getting worse. During the next government, the Greens will be the voice at the table arguing for strong, science-based environmental bottom lines. This is critical, given these changes will likely set a framework for the whole country to abide by,” Sage said.
This is a significant indication of the Greens’ preparation to be inside the tent instead of on the outer in the next government. It is very different and far more significant than Julie-Anne Genter’s swiftly muzzled attempt to make wealth taxes a “bottom line” in coalition negotiations.
A Green ‘handbrake’?
This is the Green Party clearly indicating it will seek to moderate Labour’s desire to make RMA processes faster by reducing who can submit on resource consents, how often, and to what degree appeals can be pursued.
It will, in effect, be acting as a very different kind of handbrake than NZ First, which is unashamedly more pro-industry than Labour and willing to trade off environmental protections if doing so means more jobs.
Labour has not always been unhappy about this, since its mantra is also: “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
The Greens are not opposed to reform. They agree current planning law is obstructing the swift construction of affordable housing, for example. But the party will not compromise on environmental values and, as principled as that sounds, the devil will be in the detail.
When environment minister David Parker says “over-prescriptive planning rules are one of the causes of high house prices”, that is music to many a property developer’s ears, but a warning bell to a variety of interested parties opposed to any development.
One person’s environmental value can very easily be another’s nimby reason for preserving an unsustainable status quo. The two have a habit of forming unholy alliances to slow down new homes, infrastructure and economic activity.
No matter who wins, the RMA is toast
What is clear, however, is that whatever shade of government is formed, the RMA is now on the way out.
National would repeal and reform it while Labour is proposing repeal and replacement by two pieces of legislation following a lengthy inquiry that has produced the blueprint for whoever gets to do the reforms.
The first leg of Labour’s reforms would be a new Natural and Built Environments Act (NBEA), which will seek to distinguish more clearly between the needs of urban development and the natural environment, whether urban, rural, or marine.
The second is a Strategic Planning Act, and is far more significant in its potential impact on New Zealand’s economic and environmental performance than the NBEA.
It will entrench the concept of spatial planning into the approach to urban, agricultural and industrial development and environmental outcomes in a way that is both overdue and very wide-reaching.
It will allow big picture choices about where certain types of activity can or can’t occur in the future, creating both a high degree of certainty about the future and far higher barriers to future objections to individual development proposals. If the spatial plan says an activity is permitted in a particular area, that will be a huge leg-up.
Anyone who doesn’t want that activity will need to object when the plan is being created, not when their neighbour turns up with the architect’s drawings seeking permission.
That is the theory, anyway.
In a few short sentences in a press statement last week, however, the battlelines on one of the biggest issues to be faced by the most likely next cabinet have been drawn.
This article originally appeared on BusinessDesk. Their team publishes quality independent news, analysis and commentary on business, the economy and politics every day. Find out more.