Guest Post: How did RMA reform come to this?

A guest post by ACT Leader David Seymour:

This week, I voted against National’s much-vaunted reforms to the Resource Management Act. For several years now, ACT has supported fundamentally reforming, and even completely replacing, the Act. Its 900 pages of red tape are the single biggest barrier to homebuilding and housing affordability.

However, ACT was unable to support the tinkering produced by National’s politically disastrous deal with the Maori Party. As has now been widely publicised, the new reforms actually add bureaucracy in the form of undemocratic new iwi participation arrangements.

Stephen Franks has already explained how the new Mana Whakahono a Rohe provisions breach the principle of ‘one law for all’. So in this column I’ll instead try to explain how the Government reached such a miserable outcome in the first place.

Nick Smith claims he couldn’t get agreement from ACT and United Future to pass effective RMA reform. In reality, we have offered him multiple opportunities to pass strong reforms without iwi concessions, but he declined at every turn.

Here’s how it happened: after the 2014 election, National, with ACT’s support, had the numbers to pass Resource Management Act reform with a 61-60 majority. Nick Smith voiced a commitment to reform, which ACT welcomed, with the caveat that we could not support co-governance arrangements pushed by the Maori Party.

However, instead of pushing ahead with RMA reform after the election as ACT had urged, Nick Smith dragged the chain until Winston Peters won the seat of Northland in 2015. This ended the National-ACT majority and meant Nick Smith had to choose between working with both ACT and United Future, or with the Maori Party’s two MPs.

That’s when Nick Smith made the disastrous decision to rush into the Maori Party’s arms, thinking it would be too hard to get ACT and United Future on the same page. He failed to envisage the concessions the Maori Party would demand, dragging out negotiations and adulterating the once positive proposals.

Meanwhile, I continued to meet with Peter Dunne until we agreed on an alternative set of reforms. Crucially, our proposals excluded the pernicious iwi participation arrangements. We formally offered our support for these reforms to the Government a year ago, but Nick Smith couldn’t bear to be seen changing course.

Maori Party-National negotiations seemed to stall until this year when the full extent of the Maori Party’s demands became clear. That’s when Peter Dunne and I hosted a press conference restating our offer to Nick Smith, offering him a way out of his embarrassing Maori Party fling.

That very afternoon, Nick Smith doubled-down on his allegiance to the Maori Party and confirmed his deal would go ahead.

National Party members are up in arms over how their party has been compromised. They’re letting their representatives know they’re angry, and good on them.

Winston Peters’ flamboyant comments on iwi issues have earned him airtime, but he has merely been shouting from the side-lines. ACT, however, last week actually introduced four separate amendments to improve the legislation. Our reforms would have scrapped iwi provisions, cut red tape, enshrined property rights, and prevented ministerial overreach, but all were voted down by National and the Maori Party.

This is the 18th Amendment to the RMA since it was passed in 1991, and if anything it is getting worse. It is a dog.

This is the problem New Zealand faces when a dominant party, even a right-leaning party, belatedly responds to a problem (in this case a housing shortage) that has built up for nine years. Principles are thrown out the window. Being seen to be doing something becomes the vital consideration, not the need to pass legislation that actually gets homes built. The result is a breach of democratic values, disaster for prospective homeowners, and a dark cloud hanging over National’s election prospects.

The upshot of this sad saga is actually a lesson in MMP politics. Most issues are decided by a single vote, and a small change in coalition arrangements can have a huge outcome in policy.

If ACT had just one extra MP, we could have nipped National’s deal with the Maori Party in the bud. Only ACT has been consistent on both fundamental RMA reform and opposing co-governance deals. A stronger ACT is needed now more than ever before to get National back on track.

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