The Week in Politics: David Parker's long journey

6:28 pm on 12 February 2021

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis: Replacing the Resource Management Act will take years, the prime minister faces vaccine questions in Parliament and a bill is brought in under urgency to stop the referendum veto on Māori wards.

Air New Zealand apologises for its military contract work and a dispute over ties in Parliament ends up with no one having to wear them.

Hon David Parker, Minister for the Environment

David Parker this week revealed details around the replacement of the Resource Management Act and how long it will take. Photo: Crux Ltd

Environment Minister David Parker has embarked on what will almost certainly be the government's most comprehensive and complex legislative task during its term in office.

He revealed this week how the Resource Management Act is going to be repealed and replaced, and how long it will take.

Three new sets of laws will replace the 30-year-old act, which has been amended hundreds of times. Parker expects it will take two years to fully draft the bills and get them through Parliament, and three to four years before they have any material effect on the housing market.

The act is often blamed for making it difficult to allocate land for housing development but Parker says that can be unfair because it isn't responsible for under-investment in infrastructure - although it might be responsible for delays in decision-making.

All the details are in Jane Patterson's article: RMA change will take years to boost housing supply.

National's reacted by accusing the government of taking too long. Housing and RMA reform spokesperson Nicola Willis told Morning Report "New Zealand can't wait three or four years to make it easier to build houses".

Environment spokesman Scott Simpson said Labour was on the wrong path. "For a government that talks a big game on the need for environmental gains it is moving at a snail's pace."

ACT leader David Seymour was sceptical about it making any difference. The plan would deliver "a three-headed hydra - this is the RMA by three other names with the addition of decision-making power for Māori".

Not many people outside central and local government are going to get their heads around the detail of all this, they simply won't have time. Many won't have the inclination either.

With the RMA out of the picture in the immediate future as far as the housing crisis goes, there's an urgent need for other measures to curb soaring prices.

The Reserve Bank made a start this week, announcing it would re-impose loan-to-value restrictions on mortgages from 1 March. First home buyers will have to put up a 20 percent deposit and investors 30 percent.

The restrictions, known as LVRs, were in place before the pandemic and were lifted to help the economic recovery. However, forecasts that prices would fall during lockdown were totally wrong and now Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr is worried that buyers, particularly investors and speculators, are taking on too much debt. That's a threat to financial stability should prices fall.

Orr is interested in debt-to-income (DTI) restrictions, a potentially more powerful measure which would link the amount of a mortgage to a prospective buyer's income, and he's waiting for a government response on whether DTIs can be added to his toolkit. Finance Minister Grant Robertson has yet to decide on that, and has expressed concern about the impact they could have on first home buyers - usually young couples with relatively low incomes.

Robertson, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, said at Monday's post-cabinet press conference the government was "looking at all the levers" that could be used to help supply and demand for new homes. Robertson has previously said he wants to "tilt the balance" in favour of first home buyers.

Their problem is that the sort of restrictions needed to make it harder for people to borrow money to buy houses and hopefully bring down prices can hurt first home buyers the most.

The finance minister signalled there would be new housing initiatives in his May Budget but wouldn't reveal what they were.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern walking into the first post-Cabinet conference of 2021 on 26 January.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins heading into the first post-Cabinet conference this year. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Parliament sat for the first time this year and an assurance given in November that New Zealand was "at the front of the queue" for Covid-19 vaccines came back to bite the prime minister.

National's leader Judith Collins faced Jacinda Ardern at question time and wanted to know why that assurance was given, because it's now clear that other countries have received their vaccine deliveries and are rolling out vaccination programmes.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, who gave the assurance, has been asked about it several times by the media and the government has refined its response. Ardern told Collins that many countries where people were dying had given emergency approval to a vaccine or vaccines and were using them. New Zealand was fortunate to not have people dying and was therefore able to carry out a full approval process which drew on the experience of less fortunate countries.

Medsafe last week approved the Pfizer vaccine and the first batch is due by the end of March. Pfizer has confirmed it is on track to deliver.

The government brought a bill to Parliament under urgency to do away with a public veto on Māori wards, and it was immediately criticised by the opposition.

In 2002 the then-Labour government changed the law to allow councils to set up Māori wards. But it included a provision that 5 percent of voters could force a public referendum and ultimately veto a council's decision.

Since then 24 councils have tried to introduce Māori wards but only three have succeeded.

The bill was rushed through its first reading with National MPs saying it was anti-democratic. Former National leader Simon Bridges said that as a Māori man he felt insulted by the suggestion that he needed special treatment.

"This bill, to me, says I'm not good enough to win a vote of a non-Māori," he said. "Well, I am good enough." Bridges is the MP for Tauranga.

Air New Zealand's board chair Dame Therese Walsh and chief executive Greg Foran were in front of a select committee for a routine annual review and were grilled by MPs about one of the airline's subsidiaries carrying out servicing work on engines for Saudi Arabian Navy ships. Saudi Arabia is using its ships to blockade Yemen.

Walsh apologised on behalf of Air New Zealand but that didn't stop their ordeal as MPs sought answers about other military contracts. They faced the media after the hearing and Foran was asked to name the countries which had military contracts with Air New Zealand.

He named the United States, Australia and New Zealand but no others. Foran has previously told RNZ the airline had "about 10-20" such contracts.

Then there was the controversy over the wearing of ties in Parliament's debating chamber, an issue that doesn't affect anyone except MPs but nonetheless received publicity rivalling Parker's monumental RMA reforms.

Rawiri Waititi speaks to media after being kicked out of the house by Speaker Trevor Mallard for not wearing a tie when asking questions.

Rawiri Waititi speaks to media after being kicked out of the house by Speaker Trevor Mallard for not wearing a tie when asking questions. Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

It started when Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi came in wearing a hei tiki, a sort of necklace. Speaker Trevor Mallard told him he couldn't speak unless he wore a tie and eventually ordered him out.

Outside the chamber Waititi said he was dressed in Māori business attire and wasn't going to wear "a colonial noose".

Parliament's standing orders committee met that night and the next day Mallard had changed his mind - no one had to wear a tie if they didn't want to.

During the summer recess he had surveyed MPs on whether they wanted the rule change and found that most of them didn't. Mallard, who personally doesn't like the tie-wearing rule, now says that wasn't a balanced response.

The prime minister wasn't interested. She thought Parliament had more important things to do.

Stuff and the Herald checked out the chamber the day after the rule was lifted and found only a handful of tieless MPs. Two Māori MPs, cabinet ministers Kelvin Davis and Willie Jackson, continued to wear their ties.

"I think it's important that we look professional, even as a school principal up north I wore a tie to work," Davis said.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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