16 Apr 2024

Secrecy shrouds 'fast track' projects as submissions close

5:27 am on 16 April 2024
Collage of Simeon Brown, Shane Jones, and Chris Bishop, with traffic cones, digger, and housing in background

Photo: RNZ

With days left for submissions on proposed Fast Track consenting legislation, the public is still in the dark about what projects might be picked.

RNZ's Official Information Act requests to obtain answers have been rejected on the basis material will be released "proactively". But the agency leading the process can not guarantee the proactive release will occur before public submissions close. The Ministry for the Environment said it was collating material from multiple agencies and "can't yet say" when the information would be available to the public.

Once the Fast Track legislation is in place the public will be blocked from having a say on individual projects pushed through what's described as a "one stop shop" for infrastructure.

Screenshot of empty projects list in Schedule 2 of the Fast Track Approvals Bill

Screenshot of the Fast Track Approvals Bill Listed Projects Page Photo: Screenshot

Labour's environment spokesperson Rachel Brooking is a former Resource Management Act lawyer. She said not publishing all material before public submissions closed wasn't good enough and that the public should have a complete view of what projects are likely to be included in the final legislation.

Without the lists published, the public could only "imagine" what might be included, she said.

This constraint on the public's ability to comment on projects could cast a shadow on projects which do get fast tracked.

"There'll be no social licence for any project that goes through the Fast Track Approvals bill," she said.

An unprecedented amount of power will be placed in the hands of the Ministers for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development - Chris Bishop, Simeon Brown and Shane Jones - who will have the final say on whether projects go ahead or not.

Fast-tracked projects could sidestep rules in existing legislation and projects which have been rejected by courts could get the go ahead under the proposed regime.

Brooking said the amount of power given to the ministers was very unusual.

"It will obviously leave them open to lobbying, which I don't think is good for our constitutional arrangement."

Bishop has said he's been in contact with lobbyists and that 200 letters have been sent out sharing details of the fast track application process.

Projects were not included when the bill was read in Parliament to prevent select committee members from being "overwhelmed", he said.

RNZ's Official Information Act requests for all communication and documents sent or received in relation to the fast track bill would have shed light on who he had been in contact with.

Asked if he thought material should be made publicly available before submissions close, Bishop replied: "We are working to make material around fast track publicly available. There are a lot of documents; and when they are ready for release, they will be made available."

What counts as 'confidential advice'?

Forest & Bird also sought communication Bishop had received from people wanting to be included in the fast track process. Its OIA request was rejected to "protect the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers of the Crown and officials".

Spokesperson Geoff Keey said the group complained to the Ombudsman. In its view, emails sent by people lobbying for their project to be fast tracked don't count as advice. It has asked for the Ombudsman to act urgently given how soon submissions close.

"Kiwis deserve to know who has been lobbying to get special treatment and whether environmentally destructive projects in their region or neighbourhood might be added to the legislation," Keey said.

"Unless the information about who has been lobbying ministers and who got letters in reply is released immediately, thousands of New Zealanders won't find out whether this bill may affect them until after submissions close. Even the MPs who have to scrutinise this bill are in the dark."

The public knew more about what's going on from companies than from what the government was telling citizens, Keey said.

Companies outing themselves

Filling the vacuum of official information from the government have been industry players making their own announcements.

Already, two seabed mining projects which have faced numerous rejections have made stock market announcements they received one of the 200 letters sent by Bishop's office. Trans-Tasman Resources in Taranaki made an announcement on the Australian Securities Exchange and Chatham Rock Phosphate on the New Zealand market. Chatham Rock Phosphate announced it had been "requested by the New Zealand government to make an application for the Chatham Rise rock phosphate project to be considered as a listed project". It said the legislation was a potential "game changer" which may make permitting easier. Trans-Tasman Mining's project has previously been rejected by the Supreme Court and the Chatham Rock Phosphate project declined by the Environmental Protection Authority.

Bishop called Trans-Tasman's announcement a "bit misleading" and trading of Chatham Rock Phosphates shares was halted to give the company the opportunity to "clarify and contextualise the nature of the application process".

Other projects which may get on the list include Te Kuha mine, a mining project under conservation land in the Coromandel, and the Ruataniwha Dam.

Forest & Bird spokesperson Richard Capie wants the list of recipients of the letters to be made public. "Minister Bishop needs to end the speculation over who else got letters by immediately releasing [them] along with the list of companies and individuals who were sent them," Capie said.

"It makes a complete mockery of Parliament for the Government to hide these letters from the public and MPs considering the Fast Track Approvals Bill currently before Parliament."

Bishop told RNZ he wouldn't release a list of letter recipients as it would "undermine" the independence of the independent advisory group set up to assess projects which apply to be included in the legislation.

The expert advisory group

Members of the group responsible for providing recommendations on what projects to include in the legislation were announced on 10 April.

The six members are: David Tapsell, Rosie Mercer, Vaughan Wilkinson, David Hunt, Mark Davey and Murray Parrish.

"Collectively they bring many years' experience working on infrastructure and economic development projects, environment and conservation initiatives, with local government and on Treaty of Waitangi arrangements," said Bishop.

The names on this list aren't likely to be well known by the public. David Tapsell is on the Lotto NZ Board, Rosie Mercer was a member of the Provincial Growth Fund Independent Advisory Panel and has worked at Ports of Auckland. Fishery expert Vaughan Wilkinson was involved in the redevelopment of the waterfront. Mark Davey is an urban planner.

Greenpeace spokesperson Juressa Lee (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi, Rarotonga) described the panel as loaded with industry interests. "It's a clear case of regulatory capture. An advisory panel made entirely of industry representatives means that the whole process appears to be riddled with conflict of interest and wide open to allegations of corruption."

Who ministers have talked to

While the recipients of the 200 letters and other emails are not known, meetings the three ministers have officially recorded since taking office are.

Ministerial diaries from November to February are published online and detail meetings, including the names of companies and industry associations.

Bishop met with Infrastructure New Zealand and Mercury.

Brown met with representatives of New Zealand Aluminium Smelters, Rio Tinto, Genesis, and Transpower. Electricity retailer association ERANZ, the Porter Group, Kauri Oil & Gas, Ballance Agri-Nutrients, Todd Energy, Methanex, Z Energy, BP, Oji Fibre Solutions, Parkwind, Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, NZ Steel, Mobil Oil NZ, and Manawa Energy.

Brown and Jones together met with Dialog Fitzroy - an engineering and construction company which services multiple industries including oil, gas, energy and dairy and The Gas Industry Company.

Jones met with Aquaculture NZ, Mining industry association Straterra, Fonterra, Seafood NZ, Genesis, the Northland Development Corporation, an unnamed group of "seafood industry stakeholders", Mercury, an unnamed group of mining "industry stakeholders", Moana NZ, Moananui Partners, Parkwind, Te Ohu Kaimoana Board, NZ Rock Lobster Industry, NZ Steel, an unnamed group of "energy industry representatives", Horizon Oil, Foresta, Santana Minerals, Aurora Energy, Northridge Partners, Evolution Healthcare.

March diaries are yet to be published.

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