National Party officials stifled a debate on the resource management act at their central north island conference because they apparently feared some of the speakers might make racist comments.
Bay of Plenty delegate, Margaret Murray-Benge complained to the conference that her remit on the RMA had been taken off the agenda.
Later she told POLITIK that she had been told that was because it was feared she might sound racist.
But it was clear she had some support among delegates with murmurs of agreement and interjections when she stood to complain about the treatment of her remit.
The original remit was benign enough. It called on the Government to stop putting more and more consultation requirements on to local Government.
But an explanatory note to her remit seen by POLITIK said there was no reason why one section of the community should be consulted over another “as it is breeding resentment on the one hand and greed on the other.
“The time has come to stop.”
Ms Murray-Benge told POLITIK her remit was about the proposal for iwi participation agreements in the Resource Management Act.
“Why would a plan to give special rights and roles to Maori be so undemocratic,” she said.
“The community is rumbling and saying we’ve had enough.
“All you will do is give radical Maori power and money and they could not give a continental about average Maori who I work for and with.
“I’m livid the Government is failing to read the discontent in our communities.
She said she wanted to see National get a fourth term but was worried the RMA issue could see it lose support.
As for the party hierarchy’s objection to her remit, she said “I’m not racist but that’s what they thought I was going to be.”
It was left to Coromandel MP, Scott Simpson, who chairs the Select Committee considering the changes to the Resource Management Act to answer Ms Murray-Benge.
He said he was looking forward to her appearing before the committee.
He said the committee had about 800 submissions.
“They range right from those who think that we have gone completely bonkers and that we are selling out to Maori groups and we’ve sold the Government and the aprty to the devil in a handbag and then at the other extreme there are people who say we haven’t gone nearly far enough,” he said.
“I suspect the balance is somewhere in the middle.”
But this was not enough to make the issue go away and it surfaced again during a question and answer session with MPs when Land Information Minister Louise Upston was asked about the Government’s water reforms which are closely linked to and go hand and hand with the RMA changes.
“It’s really important that every single one of you in this room know and understand what the Prime Minister has said on, multiple occasions and that is that no one owns the water,” she said.
At that point there was a loud interjection: “But who controls it?”
Ministers at the conference said they were not surprised by the underlying tension that ran through the conference over both the RMA changes and the water reforms.
What worries the Cabinet is how they draw a line that keeps the party onside at the same time as it also keeps Maori on side.
What they don’t want is Maori abandoning them as they did Labour over the foreshore and seabed legislation and then seeking redress in the courts which they believe could easily see the Government defeated.
It may have been this issue that the Prime Minister was thinking of in his speech to the conference when he said that National was a party based organisation.
“When the Parliamentary wing and the aprty wing are locked at the hip together we do incredibly well,” he said.
“When they start going in different directions it’s the beginning of the end because if the party membership don’t think that the Parliamentary wing understand what they are about and are listening to them then we have huge problems.”
The RMA changes and the water reforms are hardly at the stage of being a huge problem yet. But so acute are the Prime Minister’s political antennae that he will now know that there is discontent not only within the party but also the caucus over the two issues.
One senior MP speculated that his most drastic response could even be to pull the RMA reforms until the fundamental issues are resolved.
But the heat is now on Mr Simpson and his committee to come up with a Bill which can sit in the middle of the two extremes he defined.