Rick Zwaan: Would we be better keeping the Resource Management Act?


After 30 years of ongoing environmental degradation pushing New Zealand’s environment to the brink, the Government is overhauling the RMA.

Minister for the Environment David Parker has promised the “new laws will improve the natural environment, enable more development within environmental limits, provide an effective role for Māori, and improve housing supply and affordability”.

If the first draft is anything to go by, the new Natural and Built Environment Act will do the opposite and return us to the environmentally destructive early days of the RMA.

Instead of reinforcing the long-fought for understanding in the RMA that environmental protection needs to come ahead of other considerations, the draft law opens up a swathe of competing outcomes.

We need to get on with building affordable homes for kids to grow up in while not munting the environment they’ll rely on for the rest of their lives.

Yet, as currently drafted, the new law will repeat the failings of the RMA and favour development over environmental protection. And we know who loses when we pit the existence of native animals and their homes against projects that will harm fragile environments.

I had hoped the Government would use this once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix the unfair competition with a clear vision that puts nature first. Yet the more I read of what’s presented, the more worried I become.

There is no priority given to protecting nature. It is just another thing to be considered – and we know from bitter experience that nature loses in this equation.

The good idea behind the new law is to create positive environmental outcomes to reverse the cumulative loss of nature. This sounds good, but it appears ministerial wrangling has led to a draft that tries to be all things to all people, with no prioritisation.

For example, the list of environmental outcomes pits protecting and restoring ecological
integrity against rural economic development and housing development. The problem is that this is being set up as a competition, and we know who will win and who will lose.

As anyone with a too-long to-do list knows, when you try to achieve everything at once you end up doing nothing well. That’s why we prioritise. If the Government wants to look after our natural world it needs to say that in the law.

Setting environmental limits that developers must meet sounds good on the surface. But there is nothing that ensures places that have been polluted for decades will be restored.

Nor is there anything that prevents a future government relaxing the rules in favour of vested interests who want to exploit the environment.

We’ve already seen this with the Government capitulating to agribusiness by delaying the implantation of winter grazing rules. These rules would have prevented the situation of cows stuck in mud, sending huge amounts of soil and nutrients down already polluted streams.

The same polluters have been given a free pass from successive governments on cutting climate-warming emissions.

As long as governments let polluters off the hook, nature loses out. Four thousand of Aotearoa’s most precious plants, birds, fish, and insects are at risk of extinction. Once they’re gone there’s no bringing them back.

Much like we can restore a murky waterway, we can fix this muddled draft law.

First, by being clear in the purpose that looking after nature needs to come first. After all, if not that, then what’s the point in environmental laws?

Second, by prioritising the outcomes so the ones that help look after the environment come before the ones that exploit it. It’s a basic job of lawmakers to say what they want. If they don’t, then we’ll spend years trying to figure out what it means in the courts.

That won’t help our environment, nor will it build houses.

Finally, we need a clear direction in the environmental limits, one which leads towards restoration rather than ongoing degradation.

We’ve got a chance to gift future generations a healthy environment to grow up in. If we don’t take this chance we may look back in 30 years and wish we’d kept the RMA, which at least attempts to protect the environment.

• Rick Zwaan is Forest & Bird RMA reform advisor.

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