22 Apr 2024

Fast Track Approval Bill: Government watchdogs seek substantial curbs on ministers' powers

5:30 pm on 22 April 2024
Ministers Chris Bishop, Simeon Brown and Shane Jones will have the final say on whether projects in line for consideration under the government's Fast-Track Approvals Bill will be given the green-light or not.

The ministers with the powers - from left, Chris Bishop, Simeon Brown and Shane Jones. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Two government watchdogs are recommending changes to the new Fast Track Approval Bill so conflicts of interest can be managed and the natural environment can be better protected.

In two separate reports, the auditor-general and the parliamentary commissioner for the environment have urged the select committee, which is currently reviewing the legislation, to consider changes to the decision-making process laid out in the new legislation.

The bill in its current form would give three ministers the ability to green-light infrastructure projects like roads, dams and mines, regardless of the risk to biodiversity, or if they have previously been denied consents by the courts.

But the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton said the role of ministers as decision-makers should be scrapped.

Rather than allowing any project to be eligible to be fast-tracked, Upton's report recommended "limiting eligible projects to those that provide significant public benefits".

In addition, he recommended environmental considerations be elevated, and the role of the minister for the environment in the process be restored.

It should also exclude previously declined or prohibited activities from the fast-track process. Currently, the bill would allow those decisions to be overridden.

Meanwhile, the auditor-general is urging the select committee to change the bill to include requirements for better managing conflicts of interest.

On Sunday, Labour raised questions about the integrity of allowing ministers to make the final call, particularly when the company applying had previously donated to a political party.

Currently, even if the independent panel assessing projects for fast-track approval recommended that the ministers decline its application, the bill would let the ministers override that decision, and fast-track it anyway.

A small number of the companies listed as having inquired or been consulted about applying to get their project on the list have donated to political parties in the past five years.

Labour spokesperson Rachel Brooking previously told RNZ this made ministers vulnerable to accusations of bias.

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John Ryan Photo: Controller and Auditor General

"They are actually making the decisions. That then in turn opens them up to allegations of improper behaviour if they've had donations made by those different players. So it's a very strange thing for the ministers to want to open themselves up to."

Auditor-General John Ryan warned in his submission that conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived, could create public concern about the integrity of decision making.

He also noted, similar to a point in Upton's submission, that the ministers record and make public their decisions, and reasons for them.

"I encourage the committee to consider whether the transparency and accountability arrangements in the bill are proportionate to the discretion being provided to ministers.

"This will help safeguard public confidence in the quality and integrity of decisions made through the fast-track regime and provide protection for joint ministers involved in the decision-making processes."

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