kauri in an Auckland garden (CC) simonoosterman
A kauri in an Auckland garden (CC) simonoosterman
Delegates at this weekend’s Labour Party conference will need to do some hard thinking about the party’s direction on environmental issues.

Late on Wednesday night Labour surprised a number of people by voting to support the Government’s changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA). These changes to New Zealand’s primary piece of environmental law will make it a lot harder for environmental advocates to defend the environment and the health of communities.

Despite speaking out against the Government’s moves to scrap tree protection rules and gut public participation rights in the debate, Labour MPs ended up voting for the very things they opposed. Remember that at the end of the day, votes not words count in Parliament.

In summary, key changes Labour ended up voting for include:

•Giving developers the right to seek money up front from opponents of dirty development in case the well resourced developer with flash lawyers defeats a poor community group at the Environment Court.

robert•In the tradition of Robert Muldoon, allowing the Government to fast track developments that it likes (think Gerry Brownlee’s lignite mines in conservation areas).

•Gutting public participation rights so that councils will need to be largely convinced you’ll be harmed by a development before consulting you to find out whether this is actually the case and what you want to do about it. If you think you’ll be harmed but the council’s not sure? Up until yesterday, they would have had to consult, but now they won’t be allowed to. NGOs also won’t be able to challenge the Council’s decision in court.

•Banning councils from writing blanket tree protection rules to protect city landscapes from ‘sneaky choppers.’

Labour got stuck into National Party MP Nikki Kaye for raising concerns about losing tree protection rules while refusing to vote for tree protection amendments by Labour and the Greens. But given Labour voted to remove the tree protection rules in the final vote anyway, it seems a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Labour’s excuse for Wednesday’s astonishing display was that on balance they supported the reforms and so they’d put up with the things they didn’t like.

Now it’s pretty bad that National proposed these changes to New Zealand’s lead environmental law and it’s even worse that one of the dodgiest proposals was altered at the last minute under Parliamentary ‘urgency’, thereby avoiding public scrutiny. But what’s really astonishing is that Labour ended up voting for the changes after speaking out against some of them. It’s a very bad look.

Clearly the RMA needs strengthening, with additional ability for environment groups and the Department of Conservation to advocate on behalf of New Zealand’s natural heritage, yet the changes to the RMA made it harder for environment groups to act in the public interest, and Labour supported that. Perhaps they couldn't see the wood for the trees?

When it comes to environmental management today, the Labour Party today seems a mere blue-green shadow of its past glory; something I hope delegates at this year’s Annual Conference reflect upon.