When a Bill’s objective is vague, its provisions are rudderless

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
30 June, 2023

Parliament’s Environment Committee released its reports on the Natural and Built Environment and Spatial Planning Bills this week.

The (Labour) majority recommends that modified Bills be enacted.

But the recommended NBE Bill looks as unworkable and misguided as its earlier version. It has 12 parts, 861 sections, and 15 Schedules. The problems start with the NBE Bill’s purpose statement. It does not identify any problem in the community for which the Bill is the remedy.

Its stated purpose, “to uphold te Oranga o te Taiao”, is unfathomable. We are not told who is not upholding it, why not, or why it matters.

The meanings it is given are as all-encompassing as motherhood and apple pie.

Who decides what is the “health of the environment”, meaning everything inside and outside our homes and all our relationships with each other? And how does it help to say its meanings include “the interconnectedness of all parts of the environment”?

The courts will likely spend a decade fathoming the unfathomable.

National, ACT and the Greens each have their own opposing minority recommendations.

In the words of ACT’s minority view:

At the highest level, the bill’s purpose is to “to uphold te Oranga o te Taiao”. This is given a list of vague definitions with completely new terminology without any hierarchy. The bill throws in vague and puzzling concepts without any definition. How courts will interpret such confusing statements is unknown. This is a recipe for judicial mayhem.

Judicial mayhem is not the rule of law.

National promised to repeal the Bill, if elected. Its forthright objections are summarised in this extract from its concluding comment:

The bills fail on almost every front. They are anti-democratic. They disregard fundamental property rights. They will lead to extensive, time-consuming and costly litigation. They will increase bureaucracy. They put at risk our climate goals. They will likely increase the costs, time, and uncertainty of resource consents. We cannot support these bills.

Meanwhile, the Green Party objected that the Bill is too supportive of the provision of infrastructure – roads, wind farms, housing – to adequately reduce “environmental harm”.

The RMA failed in good part because its prime objective -- “sustainable management” -- was not a solution to any identified problem. Labour’s Bill has the same fundamental flaw, while likely throwing consenting into turmoil for years.

It should not pass.

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