The three-headed monster to replace the failed RMA

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
19 February, 2021

In Greek mythology, Hercules was tasked with slaying Hydra, a gigantic and deadly water snake. Hydra had multiple heads. Two heads grew for each one cut off.

Last week, the government announced its plan and timetable for slaying the gargantuan Resource Management Act 1991. It plans to outperform Hydra. Three monstrous new Acts will replace one.

One aims in part to ensure “positive" environmental outcomes, and set limits and targets for the “natural and built” environment. The second will mandate spatial plans dictating restrictions on space at least 30 years ahead. A third will apparently empower enforced ‘managed retreat’ from feared sea-level rise.

The ‘environment’ is to be defined so broadly as to encompass every aspect of our social, economic, and cultural lives, including of course our health and safety.

Everything in our homes, our relationships with family members, friends and neighbours are part of ‘the environment’. The Minister for the Environment is the minister of everything.

Whose views about whether an outcome is positive or negative will prevail? Not yours or mine. The common person will still be disenfranchised by the thicket of legal and planning technicalities and complexity. Only those who have, or can afford to hire, specialised expertise will be able to navigate the system. Planners will ‘adjudicate’ disagreements by imposing their own value judgements.

Vanquished is mainstream environmental economics. It does not have a problem with diverse views. Its concern is that people are confronted with the cost to the community of providing what they want, be it more or less pollution or new housing.

In most situations, private property rights achieve that. Outcomes are not dictated; they emerge case by case from private negotiations. Such outcomes are less politicised.

Paternalists take the opposite approach. They seek to dictate “for their own good” what others can do. Personal autonomy for adults is not valued. The proposed open-ended state power to mandate ‘positive’ outcomes for an all-compassing ‘environment’ is an extreme case.

Paternalists inherently reject the need to balance benefits and costs, as perceived by those affected. Unsurprisingly, no meaningful net benefit test for the mandated outcomes has been signalled.

In short, the government’s revitalised Hydra represents paternalism on a scale that is towards the limits of what might be imagined in a peaceful democracy. It will also fail.

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