The gutting of the RMA ... the heart of Kiwi values: by Anton Oliver

During my professional playing days as an All Black I was fortunate to travel extensively around the world. The more I got to see, the greater my appreciation of how beautiful and unique New Zealand was, and how fortunate I was to call it my home.

Those I met overseas would invariably ask me about this great place I came from. They’d seen a snippet on TV or in a magazine, or heard about it from someone who had travelled there and returned with tales of “paradise at the end of the earth” – it may sound gushing, but it’s no exaggeration. 

To these people – many from overcrowded countries with centuries of history and development behind their civilisation – the notion of New Zealand’s vast networks of untouched national parks, our empty beaches where we’re not charged to swim, and open access to clean rivers flowing freely that aren’t owned by any individual, sounded like a fictional land, an impossibility – surely such a place couldn’t exist? 

They wanted to know more about our land of ‘unspoilt’ beauty and its enviable natural riches, and how that could possibly be compatible with a solid economy and high standard of living. At this point I’d warmly welcome the praise and puff out my chest with nationalistic pride.

However, this image that others have of us, and that we have of ourselves, doesn’t reflect reality. If we Kiwis are to be completely honest, in the brief period that both Maori and Pakeha have occupied Aotearoa, we’ve done a pretty good job at irrevocably changing – with the exception of our national parks – almost our entire landscape: deforestation, mass species extirpation, wetland drainage, intensive agriculture and horticulture, damming of rivers, and so on. 

In 1991, when the Resource Management Act (RMA) was passed, it was a means of providing at least some environmental and social integrity to development and planning processes. It gave all New Zealanders – not just those wealthy enough to afford lawyers – a chance to be heard and most significantly it facilitated decentralised decision making: local decisions made by local people. 

It protected our environment and our economy based on the premise of sustainable resource management. And what’s more, it was politically robust, in that it received the blessing of both major parties and the people they represented.

The RMA was a ground-breaking statute when introduced.  Being an insecure lot, we Kiwis duly basked in the global adulation heaped upon us for our foresight in setting such a statute in place. 

Now, the RMA has become the subject of much derision. To many of us, it represents bureaucracy, inefficiency, pen-pushing do-gooders and paper shufflers who engage us in an excessively long and costly process that gets in the way of us doing stuff. 

Overwhelming apathy and misunderstanding of what the RMA is trying to do is deeply worrying, at a time when the Government is fundamentally changing this law that has protected so much of what we love and hold dear about our country.

The Government has floated its wholesale changes to the RMA on the premise that the Act is “is a bureaucratic and costly nightmare”, it hinders economic development and gives the environment too much weight – none of which National has, or can, back up with evidence. In fact, the hard evidence, from Adams’ own Ministry for the Environment, points to quite the contrary: of 36,154 resource consent applications in 2010-11 only 0.56% were declined; 95% were processed on time; and only 1% were appealed. And if the environment is “given too much weight”, why are environmental standards falling?

There’s no doubt that the Act wasn’t (and isn’t) perfect, but upon reflection I believe that it has been pivotal in securing our place in the world – that place foreigners regard with envy – and underpinning the ‘100% Pure, clean green’ image, which despite recent scrutiny of the claim is still one of the most globally valuable brands. 

The RMA has protected a set of fundamental Kiwi values: the notion of fairness and equity in regards to everyone having a right to their say; industry and other activities being required to take responsibility for avoiding, remedying or mitigating adverse environmental impacts; and developments being required to have regard to effects on such things as recreation, scenic values, private property rights, and the public’s access to rivers, lakes and beaches.

Suffice to say we Kiwis love recreation around our beaches, oceans, rivers and lakes; we expect to be able to swim, fish, camp, kayak and surf there – it’s basically part of who we are. Yet by tweaking the wording in the RMA, decision makers will no longer be required to maintain and enhance our access to these treasured places.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright has called the Government’s bluff, pointing out that the reform plans actually “muddy the overwhelming focus of the RMA, to protect the environment, and risk turning it into an Economic Development Act”.

Similarly alarmed at the fundamental dismantling of environmental provisions of the Act is Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the original architect of the legislation, who in a highly publicised legal opinion for the NZ Fish & Game Council concludes: “The [proposed changes] will significantly and seriously weaken the ability of the RMA to protect the natural environment and its recreational enjoyment by all New Zealanders.”

Business commentator Rod Oram bluntly calls the proposals “a naked power grab” in the Sunday Star Times, while New Zealander of the Year Dame Anne Salmond describes the changes as “an attack on participatory democracy”.

As a working Kiwi exiled in London, I observe daily in the news the UK and European countries trying to rectify the failures of their past, transitioning to ‘clean’ economic growth, sustainable industry and greater environmental foot-printing; yet here is New Zealand being railroaded towards exploiting our remaining natural resources for short-term gain with the only foreseeable outcome being long-term environmental ruin so an economic windfall can be enjoyed by a small few.

New Zealanders’ general apathy, lack of awareness or understanding of the core purpose of the Act has enabled the Government to sell you a lemon whilst benefiting a few big industry supporters. I implore you to think about what sort of New Zealand you want to live in, and what sort of New Zealand you want your kids to inherit. It isn’t too late to act – you can make your views known by writing to Environment Minister Adams or Prime Minister John Key, as well as visiting your local MP. 


Anton Oliver is a former All Blacks captain, environmentalist and ambassador for Water Conservation Orders: