Yet New Zealand is just waking up to what desperately bad legislation it is. Some beneficial provisions are badly overdue, but it tries to fix other weeping RMA sores by forcing Councils to plaster them with Ministerial acne cream. It is so prescriptive it could be a Green bill, rejecting property rights as a cure for Planners Paralysis, and instead subjecting local authorities to detailed Ministerial decrees.
So it mostly wastes time instead of cauterising the RMA bleeding.
But the more critical problem in the Bill is its transformation of local government democracy into racial power sharing. The Bill gives every local authority exercising RMA powers 18 months to reach a power sharing agreement with any iwi or hapu that asks for one. If they can’t agree the agreement will be dictated by forced mediation, with “guidance” from the Minister.
Once reached the agreements are permanent, unless iwi/hapu agree to amendments. There is nothing in the legislation to protect citizens from permanent subjection to the religious/cultural/venal demands of unelected iwi leaders with their hands on some of the most critical levers of local government. The RMA delegates to Councils powers which are legislative, semi-judicial, coercive and punitive. They have been justified on the basis that the voters’ right to eject councilors is a backstop protection. Bitter experience of abuses of power have also evolved the prescribed procedures and criteria for exercising the power, in the Local Government Act, and supervisory jurisdictions including Auditor General inspection.
So far as I can tell from the Bill there is virtually nothing to prevent power sharing agreements with iwi/hapu from by-passing democracy and diving below the current legal safe-guards against dishonesty and self-dealing.
When I heard that the National caucus were being whipped into backing this Bill, to show solidarity with Nick Smith, I was reminded of the latter days of Sir Robert Muldoon.
Not because there is any likeness between Muldoon and PM Bill English. There isn’t. Bill English does not rule by fear. He has not tried to humiliate journalists and the public service. He is not presiding over a government clinging to power with increasingly desperate expedients to block economic steam vents.
But I thought of Muldoon because taking a virtue to a foolish extreme can end both great and lesser political careers. Muldoon allowed blind loyalty to a friend named Colin McLachlan to show that he placed a friendship ahead of good government and his MPs interests. Muldoon had an incompetent (probably ill) Minister of Transport. The Minister became a target for media ridicule. It reached a crescendo with a ridiculous excuse for what appeared to be public drunkenness. But instead of distancing himself and his government Muldoon tried to force his caucus to back the doomed Minister.
It was only one among several reasons why caucus loyalty unravelled. But it told many backbenchers that Muldoon’s political instinct was no longer reliable. It told them he no longer put first the good of the country, and stable and respected government.
I’m reminded of that telling saga by the inexplicable determination to push ahead with Dr Smith’s Bill, especially just before an election. It can’t possibly get one extra house built before the election. It should be superseded early by the major reform recommended by the Productivity Commission. So its only function now is to try to salvage Dr Smith’s reputation as a ‘can do’ Minister.
It can’t do that on any objective assessment. Winston Peters will use it to mince up what is left of National credibility on RMA issues.
So to those whose calls I did not return yesterday, I apologise. I can’t explain why the government is doing something so radical and so dangerously silly (constitutionally and politically) other than to say that it would not be the first time that friend loyalty has trumped duty and common sense.
To the journalist who apologized with “Sorry to have to admit it, but I’ve only just heard about this. I couldn’t believe what I heard, but now I’ve looked into it, why haven’t we heard all about it for months. Why on earth is the government handing this gift to Winston?”
Stephen Franks is a principal of Wellington law firm Franks & Ogilvie and a former MP. He blogs at www.stephenfranks.co.nz.