Wind turbines on the outskirts of Canberra.  (Photos: SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images).
Wind turbines on the outskirts of Canberra. (Photos: SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images).

OPINIONPoliticsMay 22, 2020

Under cover of Covid, community input into RMA decisions is under threat

Wind turbines on the outskirts of Canberra.  (Photos: SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images).
Wind turbines on the outskirts of Canberra. (Photos: SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images).

Proposed reforms to the RMA would see local communities’ place in the decision-making process replaced by appointed ‘Expert Consenting Panels’. That’s a real risk when now, more than ever, we need open debate on the future of this country, argues Amanda Thomas.

My bubble has been my partner and me, and our geriatric dog. Through the lockdown, the two of us with opposable thumbs have spent weekends hacking and digging away at a stubborn stretch of agapanthus and pampas grass. We’ve been meaning to for a while, particularly since I went to a typically terrifying presentation by Mike Joy about climate change. I biked home from that seminar with anxiety bubbling out of my body, thinking about how I had to hurry up and plant some fruit trees so the neighbours and we would have fruit, at least, in the climate apocalypse.

For many of us who have been thinking for a while about climate change and how we need our society and economy to change radically, this pandemic has given a wee taste of what things might be like in a world where we consume less and shrink our travel networks, and work together with the communities around us.

Aspects of the government’s response have given a hopeful demonstration of what could be done at a national scale to tackle climate change. Clear communication, empathy and collectivity are imperative to how we respond to climate change. Wage subsidies for workers, for example, could be a useful tool to transition jobs away from fossil fuel-dependent industries into just, sustainable work.

Environment minister David Parker (Getty Images)

However, some of my fears about the government response are also being realised. Crises provide a useful cover to push through all sorts of things; for better and for worse.

A freshwater management crisis in Canterbury saw the regional council fired in 2010 and technocrats take their roles for six and half years before there were elections again. People mobilised against the ECan Act and opposition was huge, with one of the biggest protests in Christchurch for 30 years in Cathedral Square on a frigid June day in 2010.

But then the earthquakes happened and people turned towards basic survival. Years rolled on without democracy. In 2012, announcing the further suspension of elections, then environment minister Amy Adams said: “It is critical for New Zealand that the planning governance structure for Environment Canterbury is stable, effective and efficient.”

Now, with proposed reforms to the Resource Management Act (RMA), we can hear exactly the same logic being used, that we need efficiency and technical, apolitical folks to make decisions, not those elected to represent the community.

Under the proposed amendments to the RMA, there will be very little or no input from communities or local councils into whether large infrastructure projects should go ahead. Instead, decisions will be made by an appointed “Expert Consenting Panel” and proposals going through the process will have a “high level of certainty consent … will be granted”.

The notion that decisions about big infrastructure are simply technical, and not deeply political and related to our values and trajectory as a country, is plain wrong. In this regard, it’s hard to see any difference between the current government and the National-led one that preceded it.

It’s clear in the briefing paper by environment minister David Parker that there is a commitment to apply a climate change lens to possible projects. Organisations like the Environmental Defence Society are trusting in the minister’s gatekeeping role as to what projects get through.

But this is a huge degree of trust to place in one minister, especially when we won’t know beyond September who will be in the role or, in the intervening months, the concessions forced by Labour’s most influential government partner.

A man playing the role of environment minister David Parker stares at the task ahead. Photo: Getty

I’m under no illusions that councils and representative democracy in our cities, districts and regions are perfect. Councils sometimes move slowly and get bogged down in their own bureaucracy, or projects get dragged through expensive and adversarial court processes.

Furthermore, each election year, Māori communities have been very poorly served and decisions have often reflected a lack of Māori voices around the table (and on this count significant gains were made in Canterbury when elections were suspended, as Ngāi Tahu had one, then two nominated commissioners of seven representing them).

Likewise, the RMA is problematic. As a citizen, I often find it hard to figure out how I have a say and what is or isn’t relevant to consenting decisions. Engagement also relies on knowledge of technical terms and an abundance of time to read and decipher planning documents.

But bypassing debate and discussion is what led us to Ihumātao and the New Zealand Transport Authority trampling on Ngāti Kuri in Kaikōura. Where there is some scope for iwi input into the reformed RMA, it’s as any old stakeholder, not a Treaty partner.

Excluded from the RMA decision making, people are left with protest and direct action as the ways to express our democratic voice. Much has been won through activism like this. But the policing of protest has long been violent, especially and profoundly when protest is Māori led. The police powers contained in the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act, rushed through parliament last week, further expands the threat of heavy-handed, racist policing.

I desperately want things to change on the other side of the pandemic; there is an opportunity for a more just economy, that is, one built on good, secure jobs that contribute to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and reflecting a true Treaty partnership.

It’s an economy where the health of all people and the environment underpins everything we do. I am in a hurry to see this economy emerge because I know the feijoa trees we plant in our newly cleared patch are not going to sustain my neighbourhood alone. But bypassing communities, elected representatives and iwi and hapū could lead to the wrong projects in the wrong places.

Instead of limiting participation, we could rethink how adversarial the RMA has become and build in more mediation and fewer lawyers. More than ever, we need vibrant and open debate where local communities are able to have a say and check the power of central government.

I understand the urgency of responding to the pandemic, and I also understand the desperate gnaw of hunger when there is not enough work and not enough food on the table. But rushed legislation, constrained community voice and disrespect of iwi are a recipe for bad decisions that risk locking us into an unjust and unequal economy, and further climate degradation, for even longer.

Dr Amanda Thomas is a lecturer in environmental studies at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

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