a red toned chris bishop with the logos of foest and bird and greenpeace and WWf behind him
Chris Bishop’s fast-track bill has garnered disapproval from many environmental groups Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsMarch 14, 2024

We can’t find the environmental group that was extensively consulted on the fast-track consenting bill

a red toned chris bishop with the logos of foest and bird and greenpeace and WWf behind him
Chris Bishop’s fast-track bill has garnered disapproval from many environmental groups Image: Tina Tiller

Chris Bishop told reporters he’d carried out extensive engagement with the environmental sector on his fast-track consenting bill. Hayden Donnell went in search of an environmental group that felt it had been consulted extensively.

As the government pushed ahead on its plans for a fast-track consenting regime, Greenpeace planted a giant gushing vat of cow diarrhoea on parliament’s forecourt. With the manure burbling away behind her, its spokesperson Gen Toop told Newshub the backdrop was a taste of what’s about to come for the whole country. “We’ve brought the pollution problem here to parliament because they’re about to make it worse with this fast-track consenting bill,” she said.

The proposed fast-track regime gives three ministers – Chris Bishop, Shane Jones and Simeon Brown – the power to skirt existing environmental checks and balances to approve projects deemed to be of national or regional significance. Those could include coal mines, fish farms, seabed mining or wind turbines. Even putting aside the fountain of faeces at parliament, the reaction from conservation groups couldn’t be described as positive. They’ve called the legislation a “disaster for the environment”, a “war on nature”, and “another nail in the coffin for our wildlife”, while also on a side note arguing that it’s catastrophic for our democracy.

At times it’s seemed like anyone who’s had a passing association with a plant has put out a press release opposing the changes. Given that, it was a surprise to see Bishop tell assembled reporters at the Basin Reserve last week there had been “extensive engagement” with the environmental movement in the lead-up to the legislation passing its first reading at parliament on March 7.

The Greenpeace poo vat (Image: Newshub screenshot)

Which were these environmental groups that had sat down with National and New Zealand First to wrestle over the knotty question of how to protect the life-sustaining beauty of our natural world while also waving through new coal mines without recourse to the Environment Court?

Not Forest and Bird. Its conservation advocacy manager Richard Capie said the organisation received a letter on the bill from Bishop on January 31 telling them to submit their feedback by February 12. A meeting with environment ministry officials was cancelled and took place only after the submission deadline. “We weren’t consulted,” said Forest and Bird chief executive Nicola Toki on X. “We got a letter and 12 days to respond and a cancelled meeting though.”

At least they got a letter. “I can confirm that Biodiversity Hawke’s Bay did not receive any correspondence in relation to this,” said that organisation’s general manager Debbie Monahan. 

Neither did Birds NZ. “No and no,” said its president Bruce McKinlay, after being asked if his organisation had been consulted on the bill and whether he knew anyone else who had.

Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research hadn’t so much as thought about fast-track consenting. “We haven’t had any discussions or interactions on this so, please cross us off your list,” it said in a statement.

The NZ Fish and Game Council hadn’t been consulted either.

Paul Winton, the founder of the 1Point5 Project and a trustee of All Aboard Aotearoa, said he hadn’t talked to Bishop or any officials about the bill. If he had, he would have expressed concerns about the potential for ministers to expedite roads that lock in emissions or projects that harm waterways. “It looks to me like an undemocratic process,” he said. “It’s ghastly.”

The NZ Botanical Society was similarly incommunicado with both the environment ministry and Bishop. “No, he hasn’t talked to us (and I suspect not anyone else either!),” its statement said.

The Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust had taken the lack of consultation on the legislation in its stride. It responded with trademark reserve. “Thank you for your email. Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust was not consulted on this matter,” said its administrator Lisa Chrisstoffels.

Only one environmental agency seemed fine with its level of engagement on the fast-track consenting bill – the one funded by the government. “DOC provided advice to the government on the fast track consenting bill, and the minister of conservation was one of the key ministers who developed the policy and the bill,” said its deputy general policy manager Ruth Isaac.

Greenpeace chief executive Russel Norman was not quite as sober and reflective. “I just thought it was deeply cynical,” he said, regarding Bishop’s comments at the Basin. “Because it was plainly a lie. Completely untrue. A perfunctory letter with a vague description of what was being proposed is obviously not extensive consultation at all, and he knows that as well as I do.”

WWF-New Zealand’s chief executive Kayla Kingdon-Bebb also took issue with Bishop’s claims to have engaged with the sector extensively. “‘Extensive engagement’ would be the most significant overstatement in the history of policy development,” she said. “It’s a garbage policy and it’s been a garbage process. This government should be ashamed of itself.” 

Environmental Defence Society chief executive Gary Taylor was similarly unimpressed. “I haven’t spoken to Bishop, and that really pisses me off because of course all of this fast-track stuff gestated with asymmetrical influence. He just had development interest in his ear – nobody representing the public interest in our natural world,” he said.

Consultation with Greenpeace and the Environmental Defence Society followed the same procedure as it did for Forest and Bird. They were all sent a letter inviting them to give written feedback on the bill, but hadn’t met with officials or received a comprehensive summary of its contents by the February 12 deadline. WWF says it never received a letter.

Despite Taylor’s concern the environmental movement had been given less opportunity to deliver feedback on the bill than development interests, a statement from Bishop said that had been standard procedure across multiple sectors. 

“I sent letters in January to ENGOs, industry groups, local government mayors and chairs, and iwi Māori regarding the government’s proposed fast-track bill.

Referring to a meeting held with environment ministry officials in mid February – after the feedback deadline had passed – Bishop said, “Officials met with the Environmental Defence Society, Forest and Bird, WWF NZ, and Greenpeace. These meetings were held by teams and feedback from them was passed on to ministers throughout the process.” 

He said those groups could also submit on the bill at select committee stage.

Representatives from other directly affected industries described a similar process. Energy Resources Aotearoa, which represents oil and gas interests, received the same pro-forma letter as Forest and Bird and others, and were given a February deadline for feedback. 

Its chief executive John Carnegie said the agency was pleased with the bill despite the condensed process. “Everyone has issues but we were pretty happy with it provided there were sufficient checks and balances,” he said. He disagreed with the environmental sector’s claim that checks and balances in the bill were inadequate, saying “we take a different perspective.”

A perfunctory consultation period isn’t ideal for anyone. But it helps take the edge off if you get the outcome you want.

Keep going!