The environment was one of the largest areas of debate in this year’s election campaign. A plethora of policies from all parties focusing on issues from water cleanliness and conservation to climate change and transport infrastructure were firmly centre-stage. In the month following the election, Labour, the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand and New Zealand First Party have negotiated and condensed their various policies to arrive at the environmental policy of the Labour-led Government.
The new Minister for the Environment is the Hon. David Parker, who is assisted by the Associate Minister for the Environment and Minister for Local Government the Hon. Nanaia Mahuta and Associate Minister the Hon. Eugenie Sage. Perhaps most significantly, Eugenie Sage (also the Minister for Conservation), and the Hon. James Shaw as Minister for Climate Change are two of the first ever Greens’ ministers and will sit outside Cabinet.
Changes to the Resource Management Act 1991 (‘RMA’)
During the term of the outgoing Fifth National Government, there were six amendments to the RMA which were roundly opposed by all three parties that comprise the Labour-led Government. In fact, Labour campaigned specifically on reversing what they described as the ‘objectionable changes’ made to the RMA by National, with reference to the changes restricting notification, providing unchecked ministerial powers, and the removal of safeguards and appeal rights. Despite this focus, and as highlighted by the Confidence and Supply Agreement of Labour and the Greens, the immediate emphasis is likely to be on greater enforcement of the existing RMA provisions rather than further wholesale changes.
The Greens campaigned on initiating a public inquiry to determine the effectiveness of the current RMA and identifying what changes would be necessary to improve its effectiveness and simplify the legislation. They also called for a number of new National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards relating to indigenous biodiversity, natural hazard management, climate protection and adaptation to climate change, onshore oil and gas prospecting and exploration, and sustainable urban form.
The NZ First Coalition Agreement is silent on the RMA and any potential amendments to it. However in its election campaign the party proposed a number of changes to the RMA, including the removal of ‘race-based provisions’, and introducing a mechanism that would respond to emergencies involving the marine-based oil and gas extraction industry. Other NZ First policies were improvements to the Environment Court procedure in order to enhance the pre-hearing stage, and reduce the use of de novo hearings. There was also a policy calling for the establishment of a National Policy Statement on Aquaculture.
None of the changes to the RMA proposed by any of the parties have been expressly agreed to in the Confidence and Supply Agreement (with the Greens) or Coalition Agreement (with NZ First), but nor have they been expressly ruled out. However it was a centrepiece of Labour’s environment policy to convene a panel of resource management, process and public participation experts to evaluate the collective outcome of amendments to the RMA since it was passed in 1991. While this is not listed as a project for the first 100 days of the Labour-led Government it may well follow. If this proceeds it can be expected to address the ‘objectionable changes’ that Labour referred to in their campaign manifesto.
Urban development and housing
The Hon. Phil Twyford has been appointed as Minister for Housing and Urban Development, and will be assisted by the Associate Minister and Minister for Building and Construction the Hon. Jenny Salesa.
One of the most significant criticisms levelled at the Fifth National Government during the election was the perceived inaction on the housing crises in the main urban centres. The Labour-led Government has therefore made addressing the issue the focus of their first 100 days, and has committed to: ceasing the sell-down of the social housing estate, passing the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill, establishing an Affordable Housing Authority, and commencing Labour’s flagship KiwiBuild policy of building 100,000 new houses and apartments in ten years.
These key policies are reflected in the Confidence and Supply and Coalition Agreements, together with a Rent to Own scheme as part of the KiwiBuild programme (under the Greens’ Confidence and Supply Agreement), and the establishment of a ‘Housing Commission’ (under NZ First’s Coalition Agreement).
The 2017 amendments to the RMA introduced ‘National Planning Standards’, which were intended to install a level of uniformity to council plans and policy statements, but would allow the Minister to insert policies and rules as well. The first set of Standards are required to be approved in 2019, and could address matters such as urban development and housing. However, given that both the Greens and Labour described this power as ‘draconian’ it will be interesting to see to what extent it will be used under the Labour-led Government.
Climate change commission and Zero Carbon Act
Dubbed the ‘Nuclear-free issue’ of this generation by Prime Minister Ardern, the focus on climate change has been carried through the government-forming negotiations. The cornerstone of the Labour-led Government’s climate change policy is to, in the first 100 days, introduce to the House of Representatives a Zero Carbon Bill and an independent Climate Commission based on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. This will be overseen by the Greens’ leader and Minister for Climate Change the Hon. James Shaw.
The Climate Commission will be asked to determine whether agriculture is to be included in the Emissions Trading Scheme. Associated with this new policy and the work of the controversial Tax Working Group (to be set up by the new government) is a call for funds to be made available to the agricultural sector to encourage innovation and mitigation of the effects of agriculture on climate change, and to enable additional forestry planting. This is further emphasised in the NZ First Coalition Agreement, which requires the re-establishment of the Forestry Service tasked with planting 100 million trees a year.
In terms of water and pollution, the Labour-led Government intends to introduce higher water quality standards for both rural and urban waterways. The water tax proposed by Labour during the election, and the nitrate charge proposed by the Greens, have both been ruled out in the NZ First Coalition Agreement, but the royalty on bottled water remains a key policy. Labour has attempted to strike a rather fine balance in regard to irrigation; on the one hand agreeing with NZ First to ‘honour existing Crown Irrigation investment commitments’, while also agreeing with the Greens to ‘winding down Government support for irrigation’.
Other policies in this area include the roll out of solar panels on schools, a transition to 100% renewable electricity generation by 2035 and the establishment of a tyre stewardship fund. There has not been any confirmation as to how these programmes will be funded, but polluter-pays options were discussed during the election.
Overseas Investment Office
At present, ministerial responsibility for the OIO in relation to land purchases sits with both the Minister of Finance and the Minister for Land Information. In the Labour-led Government these roles are held by the Hon. Grant Robertson and the Hon. Eugenie Sage respectively.
Last week the Labour-led Government commented further on its proposed ban on overseas buyers purchasing existing houses. Within its first 100 days the Labour-led Government intends to ban overseas buyers (except Australians and possibly one or two other nations covered by free-trade agreements which might limit the ban) from the housing market. Precisely how this will be done remains unclear, but inevitably there will be changes to the Overseas Investment Office (‘OIO’).
Government procurement and the Green Investment Fund
The Coalition and Confidence and Supply Agreements call for changes in government procurement and investment. Most notably, the Greens’ Confidence and Supply Agreement requires the establishment of $1billion of new investment in low carbon industries by 2020, kick-started by a Government-backed Green Investment Fund of $100million, and the NZ First Coalition Agreement requirement the government’s vehicle fleet, where practicable, to become emissions-free by 2026.
While there are requirements in the NZ First Coalition Agreement to reform government procurement to give higher priority to New Zealand companies, and for Defence Force procurement to be reviewed, it is not clear whether any of these reviews will extend to assessment of sustainability practises of government contractors for example.
Kermadec/ Rangitāhua Ocean Sanctuary Bill
Much has been made in recent media commentary about the ultimate fate of the proposed Kermadec/ Rangitāhua Ocean Sanctuary, and there has been speculation that the initiative might not achieve all-round support from the parties comprising the Labour-led Government. The final agreements should largely dispel this given that the confidence and supply agreement with the Greens calls for the Labour-led Government to use best endeavours and work alongside Māori to establish not just the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, but also a Taranaki blue whale sanctuary. The NZ First Coalition Agreement echoes these sentiments for the Kermadecs in stating an intention to resolve outstanding issues with Māori and quota holders.
Our thanks to Ezekiel Hudspith and Joe Bergin for the preparation of this newsflash.