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The BulletinMay 13, 2024

Why the UK parliament is monitoring our fast-track consenting bill

(Image: Getty Images)
(Image: Getty Images)

In this extract from The Bulletin, Stewart Sowman-Lund looks at the proposed law and the ongoing concern about it. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

Where we’re at with the fast-track consenting bill

A couple of months ago in The Bulletin, Anna Rawhiti-Connell took a look at the government’s fast-track consenting bill and some of the concerns that had been voiced about it. The bill, which would allow a trio of ministers to effectively consent projects themselves, is now before select committee. But the worries about it still remain, as this 1News poll from the start of May illustrated. The government has said it’s open to changes with the proposed law. Before the weekend, infrastructure minister Chris Bishop told an industry conference that the government would consider “sensible changes”. But, he added, “the core of it isn’t changing: a one-stop-shop, so all consents and permits are considered together, and a fast-track – so consents speed up.” That’s the same language Bishop has consistently used to describe the bill.

Policy could take us back to the ‘80s

One of the primary concerns opponents of the bill have put forward is that it places significant power in the hands of a small group of ministers. Chief ombudsman Peter Boshier recently expressed concerns over the “enormous executive powers” the bill could create, as Tom Pullar-Strecker at The Post reported. Then there’s the risk of projects being agreed to without proper scrutiny of the environmental ramifications, one of the reasons a hīkoi of hundreds, led by Ngāti Toa, turned out in front of parliament last week. On TVNZ’s Q&A yesterday morning, lawyer Raewyn Peart, policy director for the Environmental Defence Society, said that the bill harked back to the ‘80s – “when the environment didn’t feature in government decision-making”. And on RNZ this morning, an in-depth look from Farah Hancock at how the fast track bill could allow projects rejected by the courts to get the go ahead from government (at the expense of the environment).

UK government monitoring the bill 

Those environmental concerns have gone around the world and may have deeper ramifications, as Hancock examined in this long read from March. It was reported Forest and Bird were worried that clauses in our free trade deal with the UK could be breached by the bill, as the international agreement requires environmental protections and due process for feedback. Earlier this month, the UK government confirmed it was monitoring the bill’s passage through parliament, as Thomas Manch reported in The Press. You can find the full transcript of the exchange in the UK parliament hansard here, showing a Liberal Democrat MP asking the UK trade minister what the UK government will do to ensure New Zealand upholds its commitments under the FTA.

Despite this, our trade minister Todd McClay told The Bulletin he was comfortable that the legislation in its current form would not risk our international relations – and he was aware of the international commentary. “[I] am not concerned that government policy, including the Fast-track Approvals Bill, impacts the agreed terms of the UK trade deal relating to environmental standards or the Paris Agreement,” he said. “All of New Zealand’s trade agreements, including NZ-UK FTA, recognise New Zealand (and the UK’s) right to set its own environmental laws and policies.”

What happens now?

For now, the fast-track bill is moving steadily through the machine of government. It has been facing select committee scrutiny since last week and, as RNZ reported, early submissions were largely in opposition to the bill. Submissions resume at 9am today. At the end of this process, it will return to parliament for potential updates. Te Pāti Māori has questioned this process, however, pointing in a press release to the 550 slots available for those wishing to speak to the select committee despite 2,350 individual submitters – something co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer called a “lucky dip”. Meanwhile, Labour’s Arena Williams, writing for the Herald last week, went so far as to draw links between growing disillusionment with politicians and the fast-track bill. There’s also the question of what projects could eventuate if the law passes, with particular attention paid to Trans Tasman’s Taranaki seabed mining project after the company pulled out of its Environmental Projections Authority hearing last month. While the trio of ministers will have the power to make the call, other projects are expected to be listed directly in the legislation when it passes – that part of the bill remains emptyRNZ’s Farah Hancock wrote last month about the secrecy that has surrounded the bill throughout this lengthy and ongoing debate.

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