24 May 2024

Fast Track bill hits hurdles of public outrage

From Focus on Politics, 7:00 pm on 24 May 2024
Composite of Shane Jones, Chris Bishop and Simeon Brown in front of a digger

Main image  Photo: RNZ

"Inclusion of ministerial override is an overreach and dangerous" - Helmut Modlik

A law giving ministers sweeping powers to greenlight infrastructure projects has attracted a wave of criticism and responses at select committee.

With ministers beginning to soften their language, the bill could yet see changes before progressing through Parliament.

The government's Fast Track Approvals legislation is a big part of the coalition's "get things done" agenda, aiming to short-cut the consenting process for big projects like mines, roads and wind farms. 

It is based on similar legislation introduced in 2020 to stimulate the economy at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of giving an independent panel the final signoff however, it gives the Infrastructure, Transport and Resources ministers - in this case National's Chris Bishop and Simeon Brown, and NZ First's Shane Jones - sweeping powers to select and greenlight those big projects. 

It could certainly speed up needed infrastructure consenting, but critics have raised concerns about how the environment might fare. The topic has even caught the attention of the UK government due to concerns it could violate free trade agreements

The Environment Committee has received about 27,000 submissions on the bill. With so many wanting to be heard in person, the committee had to set up a ballot system

RNZ data and long-form journalist Farah Hancock has extensively covered political donations, and says her interest in the bill was piqued by the potential for corruption. She says environmental NGOs are aghast the law could allow projects otherwise prohibited under the Resource Management Act or rejected in the courts, and gives limited opportunity for public input into individual projects. The projects to be included in the legislation also remain secret

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton - a former National Party Cabinet minister - has voiced concerns about the concentration of powers with those three ministers, and Auditor-General John Ryan has  sounded the alarm over how potential conflicts of interest are managed. Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has warned unchecked executive powers could put New Zealand on a "slippery slope". 

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Ngāti Toa led a hīkoi to Parliament this month in opposition to the bill, its chief executive Helmut Modlik making clear that while they are frustrated by slow, costly development, "we also want our taiao to be clean, our water to be clean".

He tells RNZ that giving three people the power to override the findings of an expert panel was a dangerous overreach, and he urged the government to reconsider. He can think of just two possible reasons for it: parochial political or personal self interest. 

Te Rūnanga o Toa Rangatira tumu whakarae (CEO) Helmut Karewa Modlik.

Te Rūnanga o Toa Rangatira chief executive Helmut Modlik Photo: Alicia Scott - Photographer

"Both of those are utterly appalling to consider as being bases for making intergenerational developmental or infrastructure decisions. It opens up the prospect of corruption, it opens up the prospect of politicisation of our infrastructure."

Bishop did not want to be interviewed for this episode, but he and Jones have both softened their language around ministers having the final say, hinting at sensible changes to the legislation as part of the select committee process. 

"We've got to do that in a way that also protects the environment and doesn't cause more harm than benefits and that is absolutely the intention of the government," Bishop told those gathered at the hīkoi. 

He made clear to Hancock the possibility of wider public input on individual projects was, however, not on the table. 

"Things like mining where you're talking about a resource which doesn't belong to anyone, it might be on conservation land, I mean that really is in the commons - but you're stopping the public from having a voice," she says.

"You've got an applicant such as a mining company getting the loudest voice. I can understand that some people could be quite outraged by that."

With the bill's final form still to be decided, ministers could yet give up their overriding powers and instead limit the expert panel's ability to reject projects. 

The select committee is still hearing submissions on the bill, and is due to report back by 7 September. It may recommend changes to the bill, though the government isn't required to adopt them.

In this week's Focus on Politics, Political Reporter Anneke Smith explores the government's fast-track legislation and the responses to it.

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