The National Party plans to use its newly awarded extra place on a select committee to strongarm the government into making a crucial change to its freedom camping legislation.
It is leveraging a slight increase to power it got through winning the Hamilton West by-election late last year.
The impending retirement of a number of MPs, and the prime minister's cabinet reshuffle (ministers are unable to sit on select committees) meant the makeup of select committees had to change. Tama Potaka's win in the by-election meant National went from having 27 places on select committees to 28.
Earlier this month, in among a suite of changes to the makeup of various committees, Parliament's Business Committee agreed that "pending the swearing in of Tama Potaka as a member," National MP Michael Woodhouse would be added to the Economic Development, Science, and Innovation Committee.
Since the term began in 2020, that committee has had five members: three Labour, and two National.
But with Woodhouse's addition, there is an even split. And National plans to use that to its advantage.
"Because the people of that Hamilton electorate last year voted for a National MP rather than a Labour MP, we now actually have a greater say on this committee," said National Party tourism spokesperson Todd McClay.
The party wants to use that greater say to make sure the government's freedom camping legislation goes back to the House with a major change to the definition of 'self-contained.'
The Self-contained Motor Vehicles Legislation Bill means vehicle-based freedom campers would require a fixed toilet (meaning a cassette toilet, or a permanently plumbed toilet with a black water tank) if they want to stay on council-managed land. It would mean vehicles with portable toilets would no longer class as 'self-contained.'
The Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board would regulate the certification process, and a national register of certified vehicles would be established.
Local authorities would also be allowed to make by-laws designating specific locations as suitable for non-self-contained vehicles.
"The days of the dodgy vehicle are now numbered," said then-Tourism Minister Stuart Nash at the bill's first reading.
McClay told RNZ there should be no difference between a fixed and portable toilet.
"It should be about having to use it. And unfortunately, the government has decided that they don't really care about these Kiwis, who actually are law-abiding and responsible and just enjoying themselves in the outdoors," he said.
Someone with a portable toilet could use it responsibly, while someone with a fixed toilet could decide not to use it - but only one of those would be breaking the law, he said.
"You can have a campervan with a built-in facility and get a certificate for that and not use it. And you're not breaking the law. But you can have a campervan that you have put your own facility into and you are using it, and you are breaking the law and get a fine. It just seems crazy to me."
"Not all freedom campers respect our natural environment, nor the communities that host them. Of particular concern are freedom campers who stay in cars or vans with sleeping platforms that are not self-contained. Abuse of freedom camping by domestic and international travellers not only damages our "100 percent Pure" brand; it erodes public support for tourism and undermines its social licence to operate," said Nash at the time.
National supported the legislation to the select committee stage, because it wanted to see changes made.
The select committee heard submissions throughout October and November. There was a range of feedback. The Motor Caravan Association supported the bill's intention, though was concerned over the costs.
In 2021, the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment estimated converting a van could cost between $1200 to $5000 and timelines, particularly given ongoing supply chain issues and labour shortages.
Tourism Holdings Limited was concerned over the bill's focus on vehicles, rather than the behaviour of campers.
Responsible Campers Association opposed the bill entirely, with founder Bob Osborne telling the committee "imposing fitted toilets and all this stuff isn't going to guarantee people use them."
"How does having larger camper vans meet the government's long-term goals of sustainability and becoming carbon neutral and all that stuff as well?" he asked.
Having considered the submissions, the select committee will decide on Thursday morning whether to send the bill back to the House. McClay said given the volume of submissions, there should be more time, and if the Labour members of the committee decided to press on, then National would pull its support.
Unless the majority of the committee votes to send the bill back to the House with its changes, it will be sent back as it was at the beginning, and be debated by the full House - this time, under a new minister (Stuart Nash was replaced by Peeni Henare in the reshuffle).
"The government will turn around and say that we are wasting time. But I say to them very clearly, the majority of submitters that came to the committee said that this was an issue. They were responsible, and they enjoyed their pastime, and they wanted to work with the government so they could continue to do this. The government said no to them," McClay said.
National was not arguing for a complete relaxation of the rules; it just wanted recognition that people who were already responsible did not have to bear extra costs, he said.
"If you don't have a facility, then absolutely, you shouldn't be allowed to freedom camp, because you end up polluting the environment," he said.
"But there's 140,000 New Zealanders who are responsible, they are caring about where they camp, and they're going to be impacted negatively. Yet those who flout the law already are likely to continue to do so. That's not good legislation."
MPs can attempt to amend the legislation through Supplementary Order Papers when the bill reaches the Committee of the Whole House stage, but given the government's majority in the House, it is unlikely they would pass.
McClay said the select committee stage was the last chance for the rule to be changed.
"The select committee process is not just so we can go through and rubber stamp things for the government. It is to improve legislation, and here is an area where we can improve it."