National’s plans to ask the Productivity Commission to take a “blue skies” look at rules and legislation that may impede housing development are at one level logical and unobjectionable.
But – and this is a very big but – the timing of this announcement causes considerable alarm and suspicion. It comes at the very time when the Government’s plans to amend the Resource Management Act are going nowhere. UnitedFuture and the Maori Party, who have consistently and unwaveringly opposed any moves to weaken the RMA’s principles since National first announced back in 2013 that RMA change was on its agenda, are usually seen by right-wing critics as the reasons why the Government has been unable to progress its plans. On the basis of that narrow view, there is a logic to bypassing the two support parties and abolishing the RMA altogether – although it would be a real toys out of the cot approach, and it is impossible to see a Parliamentary majority in favour of that. But right-wing ideologues have never been troubled by such practicalities.
However, such a view overlooks the fact that National has passed up many opportunities to date to progress changes to the processes by which the RMA operates, because of what appears to be a stubborn “all or nothing” approach. Several months ago, the Minister for the Environment provided UnitedFuture (and possibly the Maori Party although that is not entirely certain) with a list of 39 headline amendments he wished to make to RMA processes. UnitedFuture’s response, after a brief period of consideration (which the Minister even tried to prescribe by suggesting whom we should and should not seek advice from) was that many of the proposals appeared reasonable, some were clearly objectionable, and others required more information. I suggested the best way forward would be to release a public exposure draft of a Bill so that we could all see how the proposed amendments fitted together and could therefore be assured that the Government was not trying to change the RMA’s principles by stealth. When I discussed this with the Prime Minister in late June he agreed. Indeed, both he and the Minister of Economic Development gave public assurances shortly thereafter that an exposure draft would be released.
That was over four months ago, and nothing seems to have moved since, until the weekend’s announcement. Various attempts have been made to find out where the exposure draft is at. We keep being told it is still being worked on. (It seems strange to have a list of 39 proposed amendments, but with no legal drafting.) But we are also being told it is a huge commitment of resources preparing such a draft without an assurance in advance that the proposals it contains will be accepted. If we do not ultimately support the changes, it will all have been a waste of time, they say.
Well, that is, to put it mildly, a strange and novel approach to policy development and working constructively with support partners. UnitedFuture remains committed to working alongside like-minded parties on constructive amendments to the RMA’s processes, but to do so, we need to see the full details of what is being proposed. Simply handing out lists of proposed changes, like tablets of stone, without the accompanying legal drafting so we can see how it all fits together is not good enough. The devil, after all, is always in the detail.
National can make progress now – if it chooses to do so – but it will need to show its full hand, and work openly with its partners. Threatening or implying to “spit the dummy” is neither credible, nor the way to build a Parliamentary majority. And it does nothing to tidy up the RMA.