Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Gerry Eckhoff: Water symposiums and the RMA

One of the most disturbing headlines in the Otago Daily Times recently was – “Shocking how bad our waterways have become”. So stated Environment Minister David Parker. It is a pity he did not add – “under the RMA”. 

Minister Parker oversees the Ministry responsible for the administration of our environmental legislation - the Resource Management Act (RMA). He made those comments in an address to an “in house” symposium at Otago University where 50 selected attendees listened and spoke to the Catchments Otago Water Symposium. The public were excluded.

As the subject of fresh water and demands on its uses is such a contentious issue, one would be forgiven for assuming this seminar would have attracted speakers and an audience from across the spectrum of impacted players. Not so, as this important symposium appears to have deliberately excluded those with more than a passing interest in water management such as orchardists, viticulturists, irrigators etc who have a vested interest in better management of NZ s greatest natural capital.

 If the Minister is correct about the state of our waterways, then we need look no further than the RMA and its administration which was designed to protect/manage waterways. His comments mean he is effectively acknowledging that the RMA has failed its legislative objectives despite having been touted as world leading legislation at the time. Interestingly, no other country has enacted similar legislation. Why has this happened?

It is disingenuous to lay blame solely at the feet of primary industries and water users for the current state of rivers and streams. (see the Avon River) The uncomfortable reality which few wish to acknowledge, is that this legislation for the last 27 years has effectively overseen a decline in water quality.  It clearly states in legislation that the purpose of the RMA is to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources along with the development and protection of such resources - so why has this not occurred – for almost three decades.

 The answer (in part) lies with the unintended consequence of the RMA which promotes an adversarial approach to the management of our natural and physical resources. That in turn allows for form of tribalism where all impacted parties fall back to a litigious outcome where decisions are made not by communities but by the courts.

 National MP Simon Upton introduced the legislation in 1991 and is now the new parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.  He said in his valedictory speech to Parliament in 2000; quote “I have been a party during the 1990s to legislative evasions that have effectively passed to the courts - judgments that are inherently political”. How right he was. The fault lies with the way the RMA has been written, interpreted and implemented. As property rights were effectively abolished with the passing of this legislation - a vacuum was created.

Enter the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) who immediately saw their opportunity to capture (in large measure) “due process” of the RMA which did away with “standing” or weighting of the directly impacted person. In other words, someone, or an NGO from Auckland who submitted on an issue (in say Alexandra) would be given the same legal standing as a directly impacted local person/s.  The legal profession has prospered.

The RMA has given rise to countless politically inspired seminars by the academic community, designed to influence local councils’ staff and councillors. The academic independence of environmental science, which the public rely on - appears at considerable risk within some Universities. Any challenge to this politically comfortable science results in allegations of environmental blasphemy.

Even minor earth works can require multiple consents from councils under the RMA. The recent amazing accomplishment by contractors to reopen the coastal road between Kaikoura and Christchurch (due to the earthquakes) within one year, has occurred for one reason only. The RMA was suspended to allow the work to be done; which from all accounts has be done with maximum sensitivity. 

So why has there not been at least a rewrite of the RMA, supported by all political parties who profess dismay at the state of our water quality and quantity when the failure of the legislation is manifestly obvious. The answer lies with political influence, money and control.

 Local Government has a monopoly over consenting which they will always exercise with enthusiasm. Parliament constantly fails to agree to even amending the RMA despite obvious environmental issues due to decades of on- going RMA failures and social division.

If ever there was a reason to bin the RMA, it’s the complete failure to sensibly bring together the diverse factions to discuss contentious issues. That is why the Fiordland Marine Management Act stands alone as a beacon of resource management. For the past 13 years, the whole of the Fiordland Marine area has been successfully managed by a community/Ngai Tahu/agency approach where the community has an equal say over all management decisions. What is so vitally important to successful resource management outcomes is not so much about the protection of mother nature -  as -  the understanding of human nature.

Gerry Eckhoff is a former councillor on the Otago Regional Council and MP.

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