Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

ScienceApril 26, 2024

‘The worst piece of law proposed since 1979’: Reactions to the Fast-track Approvals Bill

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

A brief round-up of submissions on the controversial proposed law.

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Last week, submissions on the controversial Fast-track Approvals Bill closed just hours after the government released a list of stakeholder organisations who were sent letters advising how they could apply for the fast track. The Bill aims to create a “one-stop shop” for green-lighting infrastructure and development projects of national or regional significance, but it has faced fierce criticism for sidelining environmental concerns, concentrating decision-making power in the hands of three ministers, and potentially breaching Treaty rights.

Here’s what different groups and officials have said about the bill in the last week.

The government watchdogs

Parliamentary commissioner for the environment Simon Upton released a meaty submission recommending eight changes to the proposed new law, including removing the role of ministers as the final decision-makers. Upton said the bill posed “significant risks to the environment”, comparing it to the Muldoon government’s similar – and deeply unpopular – legislation: “Even the much-maligned National Development Act 1979 had more environmental checks and balances.” Upton didn’t hold back, writing that the bill would “achieve sub-optimal outcomes through poor decision-making, poor allocation of resources, a lack of legislative durability, and increased litigation risk.” Another independent government official, auditor-general John Ryan, weighed in too, suggesting that measures to manage conflicts of interest be beefed up and that ministers should publish the reasoning for their decisions. “Power comes, in my view, with an obligation to be transparent to the public,” Ryan wrote.

The expert researchers

The fast-track process is “more about getting bad things done in a potentially dangerous way,” write two law professors in The Guardian. Margaret Stanley, a professor of ecology, outlined five ways the bill threatens nature, writing that it “risks eroding the country’s already fragile natural capital.” Prominent anthropologist Dame Anne Salmond published her biting submission on Newsroom: “No MP who believes in democracy can support this bill and stay true to their values,” she said, while also expressing concern that the ministers are acting as if the bill has already become law. “By behaving as though it has already been passed, the ministers are treating the democratic process with contempt.”

The business interests

The Sustainable Business Network, representing more than 500 businesses and other organisations, said the bill is “a significant, and possibly disastrous, downgrade in environmental oversight.” The network’s submission also noted that the bill would undermine long-term development, and could jeopardise international trade, with places like the European Union increasingly requiring proof of sustainability creds.

The environmental groups

The Environmental Defence Society (EDS), like Upton, drew comparisons to the 1980s era of unbridled power: “The Bill is the worst piece of law proposed since the National Development Act 1979 (although, as pointed out at various places above, the Bill is actually less environmentally and constitutionally sound than that Act in many places).” Three environmental groups – EDS, Forest & Bird and WWF – picked up on an inconsistency in wording which could open up national parks to mining. When the Key government proposed something similar in 2010, it was met with fierce opposition and a 40,000-strong march down Queen Street.

The Fast-track Approvals Bill is now being considered by the Environment Select Committee. The committee’s report is due 7 September 2024.

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