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Health minister David Parker (Photo: Mary Melville/Getty Images)
Health minister David Parker (Photo: Mary Melville/Getty Images)

The BulletinMay 4, 2020

The Bulletin: RMA changes please opposition, worry Greens

Health minister David Parker (Photo: Mary Melville/Getty Images)
Health minister David Parker (Photo: Mary Melville/Getty Images)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Government unveils fast-tracking of RMA for infrastructure, shape of cannabis law reform announced, and Fish and Game in disarray.

In what seems like one of the most unlikely headlines of the year, the government has made RMA changes that are broadly palatable to the other side of parliament. They’re aimed at bypassing part of the RMA process, so that shovel-ready infrastructure projects can get moving faster. In a press release, environment minister David Parker said “the consenting and approval processes that are used in normal circumstances don’t provide the speed and certainty we need now in response to the economic fallout from COVID-19.” As Radio NZ reports, much of the process that currently involves consultation with the public and councils will be done away with, and replaced with a small panel of experts. Those panels will be chaired by an environment court judge.

That has led to a chorus of encouragement from the opposition. National’s RMA spokesperson Judith Collins said that while she’d like to see further details, in general the party supports them, and would even like to see them made permanent. ACT’s David Seymour said it showed the government had recognised “the RMA is an obstacle to progress and frustrating for all involved”, saying it should still be replaced altogether. The Environmental Defence Society, who come at politics from a different angle altogether, said the bill “appears to have a number of important safeguards to protect the environment.” They also said that in normal times the way the temporary law reform came about wouldn’t be desirable, but “there is a clear imperative to get economic activity going again and a strong initial surge of public and private sector spending on infrastructure projects is urgently needed to create employment.” As always, the various weightings on decision-making could still prove to be controversial when they’re actually applied.

Some concern has been raised by the Māori Party, who are telling the government that they’ll be closely watching what happens next. “Among many things the proposed new legislation intends to lower the threshold of permitted activity, apply designation processes that could compromise Māori whenua and wāhi tapu and use the EPA to oversee it,” said co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. As Radio NZ reports, the Greens have only committed to the first reading of the legislation, because they want the Select Committee process to play out before offering full support – their big objection is the removal of public consultation, “even for a limited time.”

What projects will go ahead? A full list is still being identified, but the release basically said they’ll be the projects that create jobs sooner rather than later. Transport will be an obvious priority, the Parker made a point of also including cycling, walking and rail as options. Housing and environmental regeneration projects will also go forward. Yesterday, the call for carbon friendly projects also came from a recently formed group called Lawyers for Climate Action, reports Radio NZ, who said the fast-tracking of shovel-ready projects created the risk of environmental outcomes being lost.

This all illustrates that regardless of process changes, politics will continue to hang heavy over resource consent and planning decisions. An example of this came from Politik, who reports that NZ First MP Shane Jones is now more confident that projects that would have struggled to get through the RMA will now be possible. Jones specifically talked about campaigning for trout fishing legalisation, and other aquaculture projects – which to date have tended to be controversial. He sees the changes announced yesterday as “just the beginning”, and it seems fair to say he’s absolutely right there – we’re all going to spend a lot more time talking about the RMA even with these changes made.

Just quickly, a message from our editor Toby Manhire:

“Here at The Spinoff, members’ support is more important than ever as the Covid-19 crisis lays waste to large chunks of our commercial work. It’s a tight time for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to, please consider joining Spinoff Members to help us stay afloat and keep producing work by the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, whose collaborations have had a real impact in New Zealand and around the world.”

The shape of the cannabis law reform that will go to referendum has been announced. Here is a cheat sheet for how the legal regime will be structured, with much stricter regulations on the sale of cannabis than alcohol and tobacco. The architects of the law have been fairly conservative in many provisions – public use won’t be allowed, nor will supply to anyone under 20. The regime would also offer a pathway to those currently growing for the black market to go legal, provided their criminal offending hasn’t gone beyond a defined threshold. One criticism has been made by the Drug Foundation – Radio NZ reports they have criticism about the current upper THC limit for legal cannabis, however they say overall the bill has “covered all the key issues, and public health remains at the heart” of the reforms.

Fish and Game, a pillar of the environmental movement for decades, will be independently reviewed after falling into strife and financial disarray. This particularly wild story comes from Stuff’s Charlie Mitchell, who reports that the undercurrents that have been building for several years have now burst to the surface. One issue for the organisation has been farmers increasingly using their voices as hunters and fishers to bring Fish and Game’s positioning more around to their industry’s point of view, almost as a sort of ‘entryism’ political tactic.

The rollout of the flu vaccine has been a heavily contested area of the Covid-19 response. The government’s position is that about twice as many jabs have been given compared to this time last year, and it will go a long way to protecting vulnerable people especially. However, that’s a top-level assessment, and filtering up from below are more stories that suggest it’s going very differently on the ground. Newshub reported on the 1st of May that hundreds of Auckland doctors were advised that supplies would run out this week. There has also been a disconnect with the messaging compared to the total supply for the season – Dr Ashley Bloomfield has been telling the country “all New Zealanders are now able to get a flu jab, and I would encourage them to do so.” But as One News reports, the ministry has now come out and said that isn’t actually true – there will never be enough stock of flu vaccine for everyone to have one.

Exceptionally stormy weather yesterday and overnight has caused issues around the country. The NZ Herald reports that flooding and slips have been seen all over the North Island, along with trees being brought down by the wind. And in the South Island, snow is likely to fall around the Canterbury and Otago high country, while heavy rain will continue to pound the West Coast and top of the South. Also, if you’re in Auckland and wondering if the rain means water levels in the reservoirs have returned to normal – no, they haven’t, we’re still facing restrictions.

This is easily one of the most bizarre stories I’ve ever read about the lawmaking process under urgency. As Interest’s Jenée Tibshraeny writes, the government unintentionally passed a bill on Thursday enabling it to lend billions to small businesses. And what’s more – it wasn’t actually clear to the government that had happened until Tibshraeny told them. Perhaps all’s well that ends well, because it was always something the government intended to do. But the process will leave many wondering what other blunders are being made, and the opposition says it speaks to a lack of competence.

You might have heard a bit about a miracle seaweed that can be fed to cows to cut their methane emissions. Unfortunately, while this is a very promising area of study, it hasn’t yet proved to be the game changer that many are hoping for. For more, have a look at this strong science read from Stuff’s Nikki Macdonald about the local and international efforts to make this work, and the barriers that have come up so far.

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A McDonalds drive-through in Wellington on the first day of alert level three (Photo: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images)

Right now on The Spinoff: Economist Michael Reddell calls for an outward-facing focus in the coming economic recovery. Alice Webb-Liddall reports on a reality TV star who is under fire over a dubious “business accelerator scheme” which took money from teenagers. Ben Thomas spent several months living with Tūhoe last year, and writes about what the iwi can teach the country about resiliency through a crisis. Former Mediaworks exec Hal Crawford looks at an Aussie plan to make tech giants pay for news, and why it is worryingly flawed. Siouxsie Wiles looks into the bizarre and fringe church pushing bleach as a Covid cure. Josie Adams talks to serious musician turned meme legend Matt Mulholland about his new, serious album. Fiona Fraser writes an ode to the refreshingly real food instagram of Nici Wickes. Jean Teng lets loose on those shaming people for wanting to get a fast food fix when places opened up again.

And if you’ve made it all the way down here, you probably don’t need this piece. But I’ve put a new bolded headline in to catch your attention if you were starting to drift away. Why? Because Catherine Woulfe has interviewed clinical psychologist Dr Kimberly Falconer about why so many people have been struggling with short attention spans recently – it’s a short and simple post, don’t worry.

Worldwide, there are many journalists enhancing their reputation as clear communicators of complex problems right now, perhaps none more so than The Atlantic’s Ed Yong. His latest work is a thorough exploration of why Covid-19 is such a difficult and multilayered problem to understand, particularly for those attempting to shoehorn science into societal and policy responses. Here’s an excerpt that goes into the disconnect between science and quick and clean narratives of success.

This is how science actually works. It’s less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty. “Our understanding oscillates at first, but converges on an answer,” says Natalie Dean, a statistician at the University of Florida. “That’s the normal scientific process, but it looks jarring to people who aren’t used to it.”

For example, Stanford University researchers recently made headlines after testing 3,330 volunteers from Santa Clara County for antibodies against the new coronavirus. The team concluded that 2.5 to 4.2 percent of people have already been infected—a proportion much higher than the official count suggests. This, the authors claimed, means that the virus is less deadly than suspected, and that severe lockdowns may be overreactions—views they had previously espoused in opinion pieces. But other scientists, including statisticians, virologists, and disease ecologists, have criticized the study’s methods and the team’s conclusions.

One could write a long article assessing the Santa Clara study alone, but that would defeat the point: that individual pieces of research are extremely unlikely to single-handedly upend what we know about COVID-19. About 30 similar “serosurveys” have now been released. These and others to come could collectively reveal how many Americans have been infected. Even then, they would have to be weighed against other evidence, including accounts from doctors and nurses in New York or Lombardy, Italy, which clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 can crush health-care systems. The precise magnitude of the virus’s fatality rate is a matter of academic debate. The reality of what it can do to hospitals is not.

In sport today, there’s still no sport, so instead we’ll have a column about the relationship between sport and the media from a time when there was sport. The NZ Herald’s Chris Rattue has always been a fascinating figure – for years, he has walked a line between necessary iconoclasm and mindless contrarianism, mostly managing to pull off the former without slipping into the latter. In this paywalled piece from over the weekend, he has gone through a series of stoushes that tendency has got him into, while musing that perhaps the relationship has in recent years become a bit too distant and deferential.

That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme.

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