Launching the Fast Track. Resources and Regional Development Minister, Shane Jones and Prime Minister, Christopher Luxon

The Government’s new fast-track planning legislation unveiled yesterday is even more draconian than Sir Robert Muldoon’s 1979 legislation, which attempted to do the same thing.

Muldoon sought to limit the role of the courts and have the Beehive play a bigger role in issuing resource consents but the coalition government Bill seeks to concentrate all of the power in the Beehive and virtually remove any role for the Courts.

The legislation, the National Development Act led to a split in the National caucus, with three MPs voting against it, and was a factor leading to an abortive leadership challenge against him in 1980.

Opposition to it was so widespread that ultimately it was used to consent only a handful of projects.

But Prime Minister Christopher Luxon was yesterday unconcerned about what had happened to Muldoon.

“I was eight,” he said when asked about it.

“I’ll just say to you that is a complete irrelevance.”

But even Muldoon allowed affected parties to go to the Appeal Court for a review of a consent decision.

Not surprisingly, within minutes of Luxon’s Bill being unveiled, press statements praising it from the mining and petroleum lobbies quickly followed.

At the same time, environmental organisations declared it a war on the environment.

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And Labour said it opened up the possibility for corruption.

The Bill was introduced as part of New Zealand First’s coalition agreement, and Resources Minister Shane Jones might well be regarded as its godfather with RMA Minister Christopher Bishop playing a key role.

POLITIK RMA Minister Christopher Bishop

POLITIK understands that the legislation was drafted for New Zealand First before it returned to Parliament, though it is not known what changes have subsequently been made to that draft.

The Bill builds on the previous Labour Government’s fast-track scheme, which allowed the Minister for the Environment to refer projects to a special panel that would decide whether they should consented.

However the coalition’s Bill is subtly different.

Projects will become eligible for fast track in one of two ways: either through a referral by the joint decision of the Ministers of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Transport upon an application or by being listed as a project in Schedule 2A of the Bill.

Once a project has been referred into the fast-track process, it will be considered by an expert panel chaired by a Judge,  which will apply relevant consent and permit conditions.

Panels will have a maximum of six months to do so.

The project will then be sent back to the joint Ministers for approval (with conditions) or decline.

Ministers can also refer a project back to a panel if they determine the recommended conditions are too onerous. 

Notably, the coalition has eliminated the Minister for the Environment (Penny Simmonds) from the process. The Ministers in charge of the RMA, Transport, Resources, and Regional Development will alone make the final decision on whether a consent should be issued.

POLITIK Environmental Defence Society CEO Gary Taylor

“This new Bill is deeply disturbing in most respects and is an unnecessary extension of executive power to approve environmentally damaging projects,” said Gary Taylor, CEO of the Environmental Defence Society.

“We have never seen anything remotely like this since the days of the National Development Act.

“The new legislation allows Ministers and developers to ride roughshod over all of this country’s environmental protections with no effective checks and balances.

“Under the Bill, Ministers can make decisions on individual projects; there are no meaningful environmental criteria; participation rights by local communities and environmental groups are limited; local government may be shut out of the process; and appeal rights are severely constrained.”

In fact, appeals may proceed only on points of law.

The thinking behind the Bill runs counter to the last 40 years of New Zealand political history where the emphasis has been on restraining executive power.

Labour’s environment spokesperson, Rachel Brooking, highlighted the possible dangers of giving so much unrestrained power to the Beehive.

“This Bill hands lobbyists and Ministers the keys to our country without transparency when it comes to our resources,” she said.

“The greed of corporations both foreign and local could reshape New Zealand.

“This will make New Zealand a banana republic where a Minister can be lobbied to make a decision and can disregard the interests of the public.

“We should not decide what happens in New Zealand via lobbyists with fat wallets.”

The most comprehensive criticism of the proposals came from Greens co-leader James Shaw. He, too, referred back to the Muldoon era and its Think Big projects.

“Well, Think Big is back,” he said in yesterday’s debate on introducing the legislation in Parliament.

“For the first time in over 40 years, we have an executive that is granting itself powers—Ministers granting Ministers powers, using their parliamentary majority, through a dodgy process under urgency to override some of the most significant environmental legislation we have.

“We’ve gone from unbridled power to unhinged power through the use of this Bill.

“This is one of the most significant assaults on the environment undertaken by any Government in my lifetime.”

Throughout yesterday, Bill’s main proponent, Shane Jones, kept repeating his mantra that it was a move from cancel economics to can-do economics.

“Every region of New Zealand has been blighted by the costs of acquiring consents, the length of time taken to acquire conceits,” he said.

“This piece of legislation flows from the commitments that we’ve entered into in our coalition agreement.

“I think it’s an overdue fillip and it will transform sectors, including the extractive sector and also the agriculture sector.

“As the regional development minister, I want to see the market generating more dividends, more jobs and hoping to create more international revenue.”

And he got an immediate reaction from the extractive sector.

POLITIK Energy Resources Aotearoa, CEO, John Carnegie; Resrouces and Regional Dvelopment Minister, Shane Jones and Transport Minister, Simeon Brown at a recent Wellington breakfast discussing energy policy.

Energy Resources Aotearoa chief executive John Carnegie said New Zealand needed to clear away consenting hurdles to encourage the immense investment required to deliver affordable and reliable energy.

‘Investment will need to increase exponentially for our sector to meet demand in a secure, reliable, and affordable way,” he said.

“We have heard that the money is here for renewables, so the goal now is to facilitate rapid investment in all forms of energy infrastructure.

“We are committed to working with the government, regulators, communities, and other stakeholders to ensure that the fast-track legislation is used to facilitate energy projects that provide affordable, reliable, and clean energy for all New Zealanders.”

Carnegie means natural gas when he talks about “affordable, reliable, and clean energy”.

But more gas will be a challenge for the consenting process.

Speaking just over a week ago to Parliament’s Environment Committee, the Climate Change Commission chair, Dr Rod Carr, warned that current emissions policy assumed that gas consumption as a source of heat would drop from 210 petajoules a year to 25 petajoules by 2050.

“So, if we find additional fossil gas and burn it onshore, then we would need to get greater reductions from somewhere else,” he said, though he added that if the gas were exported or used to make methanol, that would not count,” he said.

The miners were also happy.

Red and green tape is strangling innovation in New Zealand, and the mining industry welcomes the relief the Fast Track Approvals Bill, announced by the Government today, will bring, said Straterra (the mining lobby group) chief executive Josie Vidal.

“On the West Coast, miners are waiting an average of 382 days to have their permits processed, and this is just one of the many processes they have to go through,” she said.

“The system is broken and needs to be fixed and fast.

“We welcome a one-stop shop approach to streamline mining approval processes that are overlapping and inefficient and we are comfortable with the process the Government has outlined today.”

One possible project that could be submitted for fast track is McCallum Brothers’ ongoing attempts to get permanent resource consent to mine sand off the Northland beach town of Mahurangi.

The company has a temporary consent but may not mine inshore sand.

A vocal residents group opposes the mining, and their opposition is backed by the Department of Conservation, which says it has significant concerns about the impact of sand extraction on the coastal environment in the embayment, which is a vital habitat for the critically endangered New Zealand fairy tern population.

However, Aggregate and Quarry Association CEO Wayne Scott says Auckland ran out of sand during the lead-up to Christmas.

He said some concrete plants were unable to produce for their customers.

“Auckland has not yet reached the peak of demand that emerged late last year and caused some delays in concrete production for projects,” he said.

“We may also have a bit of softening happening in housing but infrastructure projects are ramping up and with that, demand for sand will continue to rise and shortages will see project delays.”

Kaipara District Council The Mangawhai coastline with the untouchable sand

The political problem is that Mangawhai is a National Party stronghold. The party got its second-highest party vote last election in Northland, and many of the “Stop Sand Mining” lobby group members will be National Party supporters.

National party voters have already demonstrated the pressure they can put on the party over environmental matters with their opposition to the Medium Density Residential Standards, which were promoted by Nicola Willis and which waived the need for consent for up to three houses up to three storeys high on any urban section.

Last May, Luxon had to announce the party was abandoning its support for the proposal.

One senior National official recently told POLITIK that the proposal had been disastrous politically and that if he had wanted to live in Brixton he would stayed there on his OE.

Not that NIMBYs will trouble Shane Jones.

“Gone are the days of the multicoloured skink, the kiwi, and many other species that have been weaponised to deny regional New Zealand communities their right to a livelihood, their entitlement to live peacefully with their environment but derive an income to meet the costs of raising families in regional New Zealand,” he said in Parliament yesterday.

Though the specific projects to be admitted to the fast-track process have yet to be named, there is one particularly interesting aspect of the Bill.

Schedule Five sets out how the Bill can trump the Conservation Act. This is particularly relevant to the currently suspended Ruataniwha dam project, which the Supreme Court stopped in 2017 when the court ruled that land that would be affected by the scheme should retain conservation status, which the Director General of the Department of Conservation had revoked to allow the dam to go ahead.

The Bill’s trumping of the Conservation Act would allow that revocation to be reinstated, thus allowing the controversial dam to proceed.

This Bill is likely to set off a whole series of political rows.

On the national level, the extraordinary aggregation of power to the Beehive is likely to attract the level of opposition we saw against the Muldoon Bill  in 1979.

Each decision made under the Bill will, in turn, provoke local opposition, which will be without an outlet for expression.

But Luxon is determined to press ahead regardless.

“This country needs a deep turnaround,” he said yesterday.

“ All of our parties are united on that. All of our caucus is united on that.

“We are here to get things done. We think this is common sense. Pragmatic.

“This is what happened in 195 countries in the world. Many of them have very similar processes.

“That’s what’s actually been frustrating a lot of investment from coming into New Zealand.

 It’s partly why we’re the second worst in the OECD, behind Mexico, in welcoming foreign direct investment because the process is just too hard.

“We need that capital. We want to get infrastructure built.”