a forest with the beehive sitting in it and a paper plane crashing into the beehive
Why has this bill become so-high profile that 27,000 people wrote submissions? (Image: The Spinoff)

PoliticsJune 7, 2024

What’s going on with the controversial Fast-track Approvals bill?

a forest with the beehive sitting in it and a paper plane crashing into the beehive
Why has this bill become so-high profile that 27,000 people wrote submissions? (Image: The Spinoff)

Protests are being held this weekend against the government’s proposal to allow big infrastructure projects to fast-track the approval process. Here’s a quick guide to what’s happening. 

On Saturday, Forest & Bird’s chief executive Nicola Toki will be joining what she calls “the biggest fight for New Zealand’s environment in my lifetime”. The environmental organisation is one of 25 different groups supporting a “March for Nature” on Saturday in Auckland. “Our government is taking us back to the 1970s by bulldozing through protections and giving three uninformed ministers almost unilateral power to approve any development they want, no matter how environmentally damaging,” Toki says.

Being endorsed by high-profile environmental groups like Forest and Bird, WWF and Greenpeace as well as trade union NZEI and regional advocates like Wise Water Use Hawke’s Bay, the protest hopes to rally mass opposition to the Fast-track Approvals Bill currently going through parliament. At the same time, there will also be a “Stop the Wars! Stop the Fast Track Bill!” event in Christchurch, organised by Extinction Rebellion and the Palestine Solidarity Network, and a march focused on government cuts in Wellington. 

But what is the Fast-track Approvals Bill, and why do so many people hate it so much? Here’s a brief introduction. 

a red toned chris bishop with the logos of foest and bird and greenpeace and WWf behind him
Chris Bishop, one of the proponents of the Fast-track Approvals Bill (Image: Tina Tiller)

What would this proposed law change?  

The government says the Fast-track Approvals Bill will make it easier for companies to get consents for new “regionally and national significant” projects: infrastructure, mines, roads, housing. As the name suggests, it’s supposed to make the consenting process faster for particularly big or important infrastructure projects. 

Project owners who want to be considered must have their application approved by government ministers, who will then refer projects to a panel that will assess the details. The panel will then make a recommendation back to the ministers, who get the final say on whether the project should go ahead. Those ministers are whoever holds the regional development, transport and infrastructure portfolios (currently Shane Jones, Simeon Brown and Chris Bishop respectively); the conservation minister (currently Tama Potaka) will be involved in some approvals too. Crucially, ministers are not bound to the decisions of the panel – if the panel has concerns about the environmental, conservation or heritage impact of a project but ministers approve, it can still go ahead.

The creation of the bill was a part of the coalition agreement between New Zealand First and National, with the rationale being that New Zealand’s current consenting process is too slow and unwieldy to make a difference. It had its first reading in March, and is currently at the select committee stage, where parliamentarians read and listen to submissions (which closed on April 19) in order to possibly revise the bill and write a report, which is due back in September. 

Wait, haven’t there been fast-track consenting laws in New Zealand before? 

Yes – during the Covid pandemic in 2020, the previous Labour government put a similar law into place. For a limited time, in order to stimulate the economy, the resource consenting process could be expedited for specific “shovel-ready” projects that were under the RMA. If the minister for the environment accepted a proposal, it was referred to an expert panel, which could ask councils and iwi, among others, for input, with the panel then delivering a decision within 70 days. 

Under the 2020 legislation, ministers decided which applications went to the expert panel, but the panel had the final say. The law was also time bound, with a clause that meant it expired after two years. 

The current bill, on the other hand, gives ministers the ultimate decision. Instead of just applying to consents under the Resource Management Act, it would also allow projects to skip nine other laws and regulations.

a dappled brown frog with a red tap reading 'proposed mining' over it
Wharekirauponga is home to the endemic Archey’s frog and the proposed site of a new underground mine – the kind of project that could be approved through the Fast-track process (Photos: supplied)

I have heard that it’s really hard and expensive to get consents in New Zealand, even if you just want to do something small, like dig a pool in your house. So what makes this bill so controversial? 

There’s a big coalition of people who are opposed to the bill, mostly because of the fact that ministers, rather than environmental experts, get the final say on projects, and the way the legislation can bypass usual environmental safeguards. Lots of environmental groups, including the several dozen running the March for Nature, have loudly opposed the bill, due to the perceived environmental threat of big infrastructure projects without protections. 

But there are other reasons groups have for opposing the bill too. Transparency International, an organisation that campaigns against corruption, has said the concentration of power in the hands of ministers could change perceptions of New Zealand overseas. Former prime minister and constitutional law expert Geoffery Palmer has described it as “constitutionally repugnant”. Ngāti Toa led a hīkoi to parliament to present their submissions, and Auckland Council said the bill is “unsupported by evidence” and “is poorly integrated” in its submission. 

There’s widespread public opposition beyond these high-profile groups and individuals, with 27,000 people submitting written submissions to the Environment Committee that is assessing the bill before it gets voted on again. This is way more than most bills. By comparison, the Marriage Amendment Bill which made same-sex marriage legal in 2013 received 21,500 submissions

Nearly 3,000 asked to appear in front of the select committee to make submissions in person, but because of time constraints, the committee chair David McLeod said that only 1,100 people would get to do this – 550 organisations and 550 members of the public. 

So if lots of people hate it – many of whom will be protesting this weekend – is the government likely to back down? 

Chris Bishop, the minister responsible for RMA reform, has already seemed to indicate that the next version of the fast-track bill presented to parliament could have revisions. “We hear the challenge,” Bishop told the Ngāti Toa delegation in May. “As I’ve said, we’re open to constructive, sensible changes to the bill to ameliorate some of the concerns that Ngāti Toa Rangatira and others have.” However, he has also insisted that “we’re determined to cut through the thicket of red tape and green tape that’s holding this country back.” 

Bishop has said that while the “core” of the bill – a “one-stop shop” with the same process for heritage, conservation and environmental concerns, with projects recommended by ministers – will stay the same, issues with ministers’ conflicts of interest or decision making could be addressed. That might include changing the fact that ministers get to have the final say over projects. 

Whether these changes eventuate won’t be known until the bill has its second reading, after the select committee reports to the house. But opponents of the bill say that public opposition, including at the protests this weekend, will make a difference. 

To Toki at least, the choice is clear. She describes the bill as a “short-term and destructive approach to our natural heritage”.

“The right thing to do now is for the government to demonstrate they’ve heard the people they’re here to serve,” she says.

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