19 Apr 2024

Chris Bishop accused of ‘gaslighting’ tone in response to concerns over transparency of Fast Track Bill

6:00 am on 19 April 2024
Collage of Chris Bishop, protestors and mining equipment

Photo: RNZ

Cabinet Minister Chris Bishop has been accused of "gaslighting" after suggesting members of the public could submit projects of their own for consideration under the proposed Fast Track Approvals Bill.

Public submissions on the bill are due to close tonight, but it is still not clear which projects are in line for consideration under the new process.

If the bill passes, the public will be barred from making submissions on chosen projects, which will be able to side-step existing laws and could allow projects previously rejected by courts to proceed.

Minister for RMA Reform Chris Bishop is one of three ministers who will have a final say on whether projects can go ahead.

In a written question from Green Party co-leader Chlöe Swarbrick, he was asked where in the process the public had an opportunity to weigh in on projects. Bishop replied that they could have input on individual projects by applying to complete a regionally or nationally significant infrastructure or development project themselves.

"The public has the opportunity to submit applications for listed projects to be considered by the Fast-track Projects Advisory Group. These projects will be subject to assessment by that Group, and Ministers will make final decisions on which projects should be listed in the Bill," Bishop stated.

The proposed legislation allows applicants to weigh in on their own applications, but blocks expert panels considering individual applications to seek public input.

Bishop also said the public have until this evening to make a public submission on the wider bill, which currently includes no information about projects to be considered.

Written question from Chlöe Swarbrick and answer from Chris Bishop

Photo: RNZ

Minister's response 'dismissive' of public interest

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said she thought Bishop's answers were dismissive and equated to gas lighting.

"Instead of [the public] being able to highlight concerns, 'nah nah, join in with the destruction. Never mind hearing about your concerns, you too can be a destroyer'."

In most of his answers to the Green Party's questions, which were shared with RNZ ahead of their public release, Bishop gives a one-word response: "No."

He did not rule out coal mining being fast-tracked, or mining occurring in places classed as significant natural areas.

"Going through the questions and the replies, the tone is 'nah, nah, nah, it'll be all cool'," Davidson said.

"The bottom line is that there are no guarantees for protection of all of the things that people are holding dear."

The bill would open the way for the Te Kuha mining project to go ahead, she said.

The coal mine needed three sets of permission to proceed including resource consents, permission to mine public conservation land and permission to mine the public reserve. It previously lost in all three processes.

A large amount of public conservation land could also be used for projects under the new bill.

Bishop couldn't give a date for when the public might be able to see what projects are being included in the legislation, saying a date for Cabinet to consider the projects recommended for inclusion has not been set.

RNZ and Forest & Bird's attempts to use the Official Information Act to have communications which may shed light on who ministers have been in contact with have been blocked. RNZ was told information would be released "proactively" but this has not happened before the final day of submissions. Forest & Bird was told emails to ministers from companies were "advice" and exempt from release. It has complained to the Ombudsman.

Two seabed mining companies, Trans Tasman Resources and Chatham Rock Phosphate, have identified themselves as being "invited" to apply for fast-tracking, an interpretation Bishop described as misleading.

The bill aims 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.

When it was introduced, Bishop said gaining consents for projects takes far too long and costs too much.

"We are determined to cut through the thicket of red and green tape holding New Zealand back, make it clear to the world that we are open for business, and build a pipeline of projects around the country to grow the economy and improve our productivity," he said.

Green party co-leader Marama Davidson

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

In other answers given to the Green Party, Bishop said he saw no issue assembling an Expert Advisory Group before public submissions closed and confirmed the panel members were chosen by ministers from nominations made from agencies involved in the preparation of the bill.

Davidson urged the public to make a submission while they were still open. Without projects listed, she suggested people concentrate on how they want their own local areas to remain protected.

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