Monday, 6 August 2007

Fisking Nick Smith's conference speech: "Gutting"? What gutting?

Says Nick Smith at the weekend's National Party conference:
The problem is that while Helen Clark is chanting 'sustainability' like a Hare Krishna her Government's laws and departments are making it harder than ever to advance renewable energy projects.
An amusing soundbite, but perhaps the chief problem here is that while Helen Clark is chanting 'sustainability' like a Hare Krishna seeking electoral nirvana, Nick Smith is chanting the self-same incantation like a catholic trying to buy electoral indulgence.

What's different between them is only the colour of their robes.

The real problem is both of them. The problem with Nick is that he's still to acknowledge that "the Government's laws and departments that are making it harder than ever to advance renewable energy projects" (or any energy projects at all) were put in place by Nick's mentor Simon Upton, and kept in place by Nick without amendment when he was Minister.

He knows that. He hopes you've forgotten.

So it's impossible to take his criticisms seriously. Or him. His criticisms are valid, but there's nothing he's got that's going to make any difference at all.
The Dobson hydro project on the West Coast was blocked by her Minister of Conservation, Chris Carter. Project Aqua was killed off by Minister Marian Hobbs and then local MP David Parker. The Wairau Hydro Scheme in Marlborough, granted consent last month after a tiresomely long 18-month hearing process, has now been appealed to the Environment Court by none other than the Department of Conservation."
All too true, and all too sad, but what's even sadder is that nothing Nick proposes would make a difference. Nothing in Nick's plan to "simplify and streamline" the RMA will make a blind bit of difference to any of the problems he identifies.

Wouldn't you call that dishonest?

Russel Norman makes headlines by claiming that Nick wants to "gut" the RMA. Frog Blog says he wants to "subsidise urban sprawl." Neither are true. Smith, you'll recall, is on record as wanting to "soften" National's environmental message, and even that would be too bold a description for what Smith proposes here and elsewhere. "Window dressing" would be more accurate, and too kind.

Smith claims that as minister he will "streamline and simplify" the RMA, or at least that's what the headline says. But what's needed to fix all the ills he cites in energy production, in tranport, in aquaculture and with housing affordability is not "streamlining and simplifying" the RMA, but actually gutting it, as Russel so erroneously claims is on the table; what's really needed is not softening, tinkering or simplifying (even if it were true) but putting a stake right through the heart of the RMA, burying it for good, and starting again with a property-rights based common law system that protects both the environment and property owners.

But that's not on offer.

What is on offer is Smith's plan to streamline and simplify that's so crucial to so many other policy proposals from the Pink Tories, not least in Key's four-point plan to improve housing affordability. What is the plan? Says Smith, "There are three broad themes that make up National’s proposals." Remember as the read these "broad themes" that the National Party is, in Smith's own words, "a pro-market, pro-enterprise party that hates bureaucracy and stifling red tape."
Firstly, the Act needs greater central government direction. It is the most devolved environmental statute in the world resulting in every Council having to reinvent the wheel. We propose setting up to 20 national environmental goals to clearly guide decision makers on what needs to be achieved and will measure progress towards them. That is also why we are keen on an Environmental Protection Authority.
Greater central government direction. An Environmental Protection Authority. Does that sound like less bureaucracy and less stifling red tape? Is he stupid, or does he think we are? What's next?
Secondly, National wants greater use of price signals, markets and better recognition of property rights.
Well, that would be good, wouldn't it. But what does this mean to Smith? It means "in areas like water permits, greenhouse gas emissions, and nitrogen discharges, we favour cap-and-trade systems over bureaucratic systems of allocation." To Smith, "greater use of price signals, markets and better recognition of property rights" looks like just another form of bureaucratic rationing. Frightening, isn't it. No mention of securing the property rights of land owners, or even of placing property rights at the heart of the RMA. No mention at all, and no chance of it ever happening under a Smith-led environment ministry. To Smith, "property rights" means that bureaucrats can take your land or strip the value from your land by bureaucratic fiat, and you might be able to receive some "compensation." That's the gist of his third "theme":
We also want to improve the compensation mechanisms in the Public Works Act. We want to make explicit that landowners must be consulted over rules affecting their land and believe a net conservation benefit approach would get better environmental outcomes. We want less litigation and more science in decision-making. We propose refocusing the legal aid fund and putting the money into more technical support and into mediation services.
Explain that gibberish if you can (and try to explain to someone like The Castle's Daryl Kerrigan that compensation for their property is tantamount to protecting their property rights).

So much for the "themes"; what about the details? How, if at all, will he go about "simplifying and streamlining the processes of the Act to reduce the delays, uncertainties and costs."

Let me detail some of our proposals for simplifying the Act:
1. We propose to limit the definition of environment to natural and physical resources so as to avoid vexatious arguments over trade competition and where the Taniwha might live.
A small change. A very, very small change that without a substantive change to section 5 of the RMA is all but meaningless.
2. We propose to reduce the number of consent categories from the current five to three, so it is not nearly so complicated.
The number of consent categories were increased so as to make consent applications easier; reducing them is going to make applications harder, not easier.
3. We propose fixing the vague Treaty clause by removing the broad reference to it’s principles [sic] that nobody understands and be quite specific about the consultation requirements with iwi.
"Fixing" would be good, if we could be certain that "fixing" meant removing. Nothing less will do.
4. We propose reducing the number of plans. We note with interest that Northland has adopted a ‘one plan’ policy integrating its Regional and three District Plans into one, and we are exploring applying it nationwide. Eighty-five plans for a country of four million people is excessive.
Irrelevant window dressing.
5. We propose integrating the RMA properly with the Historic Places, Forests, Building and Fisheries Acts, so applicants are not confronted by multiple hurdles.

And just as irrelevant is this last point. Taken together then Smith's five points are a mixture of irrelevant, meaningless, hopeless and more damaging, much like himself really. What about his next five points, which he promises will "streamline the Act:

1. It is a waste of everyone’s time to go through years of double process of a consent hearing and then the Environment Court. That’s why we back the direct referral of major applications straight to the Environment Court.
Small and worthwhile, but hardly a king hit to bureaucracy and red tape.
2. It is wrong that Ministers can veto the process as we saw with the 13-year debacle over the Whangamata Marina. That veto will go under National and decisions will be left with the Environment Court.
A long overdue change, and helpful to those few projects that the minister reviews, but irrelevant to ninety-nine-point-nine percent of resource consent proposals that linger for months or even years, and no help at all in reducing the thirteen years it took for the Whangamata Marina application to even get to the minister's desk. In other words, more window dressing.
3. There should be a penalty when Councils ignore the 20-day timeline for resource consents. Councils charge penalties when the ratepayer is late, as with rates. If it is good enough for the goose, it is good enough for the gander.
This is something that sounds good but will deliver the opposite of the intended result. Councils are already adept at asking pathetic and irrelevant questions to extend that nominal twenty-day limit they have for considering resource consent applications; making "a late consent a free consent" won't make consents arrive any earlier, or save anyone any money: instead applicants will simply be assailed with even more stupid and irrelevant questions to justify those processing applications "stopping the clock" than they do now. And although it's hard to image how much more stupid some of those questions can get, it's clear enough that the stupid questions will increase under Smith's stupid proposal. That he wants to hang his hat on this is a sign of how little he really understands the Kafka-esque problems with making and receiving Resource Consent applications.
4. There should be limits on requests for more information. An applicant should be able to require that a consent be processed, albeit they run the risk of being rejected. They at least then have the option of appealing to the Environment Court.
Few applicants that I know of want to got to the Environment Court at all, as most council planners are aware. As an empty threat, this one is much emptier than most.
5. The Court should have the power to require security for costs, a power taken away by Labour. If an application or objection is weak and likely to involve a costs order, this discretionary power of the Court helps get rid of the vexatious and frivolous.
An improvement perhaps, if only a minor improvement, but given the irrational, unpredictable and (as I described it) Kafka-esque nature of Resource Consent law, no rational submitter on (for example) an overbearing District Plan or on council zoning abuses is going to be risking their houses to stand up against the council, and none is likely to be either solvent or active for very long.

So that's it. This is what Smith calls "streamlining and simplifying" the RMA. This is what Russel Norman calls "gutting" the RMA. This is what Key, in his own speech, says is going to "ensure there is an increased supply of suitable land available to build houses on."

They're all wrong. This is pathetic and ineffective window dressing. Nearly twenty years after its introduction the Resource Management Act continues to destroy wealth creation and savage New Zealander's property rights and home-ownership aspirations, and this pathetic soft-shelled excuse for a human being has yet to learn to identify the solution: a stake through its heart.

If he really believes that his pathetic, weak-kneed ten-point plan is anything other than hopeless drivel, then he's even worse than I ever took him for. No wonder Lindsay Perigo calls him a man with a tongue so forked you could hug a tree with it.

NB: You're not going to find serious environmental reform by thumbing through the bland promises of the mainstream parties. Look out soon for the release of Libertarianz' seven-point plan to begin the deregulation of the environment. That's something that, if implemented, really would recognise individual freedom and personal responsibility, and kickstart a genuine environmental revolution for the better.


  1. When is someone going to put a meathook in this turd's back and GUT HIM?

  2. I bet that Mr. Smith will succumb to Russel Norman's campaign to leave the RMA alone. Mind you that there are lots of National supporters are tree-fucking-huggers.


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