29 Apr 2024

Fast-track bill could affect NZ's reputation - Transparency International

6:25 pm on 29 April 2024
Collage of Simeon Brown, Shane Jones, and Chris Bishop, with traffic cones, digger, and housing in background

Photo: RNZ

Transparency International says the fast-tracking consent bill could taint New Zealand's international reputation.

In March, the government unveiled a plan to fast-track infrastructure projects, giving just three ministers the power to greenlight significant projects.

The bill, which is before a select committee, has been criticised for potentially exposing the ministers to corruption allegations.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton said the role of ministers as decision-makers should be scrapped. And the auditor-general had urged that the bill included requirements for better managing conflicts of interest.

Transparency International - which campaigns against corruption worldwide - is most concerned about this conflict of roles, in that ministers would be both gatekeepers of fast-track referrals and the ones making the decision to green-light projects.

The organisation's New Zealand chief executive Julie Haggie told Checkpoint that there was "just too much power" concentrated in "one aspect of that decision, in order to give trust to people that there is a fair, accountable and transparent process going on".

The bill aimed to speed up the approval of projects and reduce the cost of consenting. At the moment, about $1.3 billion is spent each year on the consenting of projects and the time taken to get a consent has doubled within five years, according to the Infrastructure Commission.

The new regime will set up an expert panel to give recommendations - but the transport, regional development and infrastructure ministers would have final say on approving projects such as mines or dams, regardless of an expert panel's advice and even if a court had previously denied consent.

The process as it stands was problematic because it "side-steps" the resource consent process that other organisations needed to go through, and because ministers could reject the panel's expert advice, she said.

"Conflicts of interest are more about actual personal involvement of the minister - and we're not saying that's necessarily the case.

"What it sets up, though, is that people who've got a strong interest and power in a situation are making referrals, and decisions, and are even setting up a system within a bill that then also reduces the amount of challenge, the amount of participation and even notification of people who will be affected by those decisions.

"Those things are inherent in our laws... that right to appeal, that right to challenge, and the right to know about things, so [under this process] the power is concentrating at a point where people who are affected will have even less say."

Cabinet Minister Chris Bishop said the government was aware ministerial conflicts of interest could arise, but would be "carefully managed in accordance with the Cabinet Manual guidance".

"No decisions have yet been made about the inclusion of specific projects."

Checkpoint host Lisa Owen asked whether the new system might raise questions about donations to the politicians making those decisions.

Haggie said that was a broader concern. "We've heard there are two companies that are on the list [of those invited to apply for projects to be fast-tracked] already, which is itself quite strange because it's already been developed before the legislation is passed."

Details of companies and individuals who had donated to different parties' election campaigns would be revealed on 1 May. However, Haggie would not be drawn on whether there was a link between donations and the fast-track bill, saying the government had the electoral mandate to make these changes.

"It's about perception, isn't it? People need to know there are checks and balances; that there is not the purchasing of clientele going on, or arranging of legislation to suit the people who give you money.

"It's more about the structure of how this is being done ... and the problems with transparency and accountability."

New Zealand last year slipped from second to third place in the 2023 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. This was based around the diversion of public funds to contracts through corruption, she said.

"I'm certain that the government intends no corruption in [the new bill].

"But the problem is that it may well drop the perception even further, that somehow there's some corralling of public contracting, and that it's not fair, it's not competitive...

"It certainly would affect our international reputation if we dropped down further."

Transparency International believed public perception around the fast-track bill might be improved by a sunset clause, "so that it doesn't just go on and on" and said the scope was currently "very broad", not just involving the Resource Management Act.

"The bill seems to have exclusion clause for the OIA [Official Information Act] so it's not clear whether people will be able to seek information and gain it, and then there are the legal challenge rights which seem to be curtailed as well."

Bishop said there was no intent to exclude the Fast-track Approvals process from the Official Information Act.

"Our intent is to ensure that LGOIMA applies to the expert panel as if they were local government, and the ministers are already subject to the OIA. Our Fast-track Approvals Bill actually uses the same clauses as Labour's Fast-track legislation - and like Labour's legislation, there is there is the ability for the panel to make an order that prohibits publication of information in certain circumstances, such as commercially sensitive information," he said.

There could be economic consequences if New Zealand's international reputation were to drop further, Haggie said.

"The problem is we rely on our international reputation hugely in terms of our trading status... our mana internationally at trading tables, and generally as a good government citizen of the world...

"That's really important for New Zealand to hold its head up high and be able to say its systems are clean, it's a good democracy, it's a safe place... it's running a good, fair system for doing business, and for its people in terms of participation."

Bishop said the bill was part of the government's plan for "rebuilding the economy and growing productivity".

"We are making it clear to the world that we're open for business and building a pipeline of significant projects around the country - because it's only through a strong economy that we can afford the public services New Zealanders need."

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