Bryce Edwards: FastTrackWatch – The Case for the Government’s Fast Track Bill

Bryce Edwards: FastTrackWatch – The Case for the Government’s Fast Track Bill

Many criticisms are being made of the Government’s Fast Track Approvals Bill, including by this writer. But as with everything in politics, every story has two sides, and both deserve attention. It’s important to understand what the Government is trying to achieve and its arguments for such a bold reform. As part of a new series providing scrutiny of the fast-track legislation, this first column rounds up the commentary and arguments in favour of what the Government is proposing.

Chris Bishop puts the case for getting things done

The architect of the overturn of RMA is Infrastructure and Housing Minister Chris Bishop. He has developed the new regime, with the central purpose of enabling the country to “get things done” – i.e. for development to occur. This goal comes in the context of widespread awareness and consensus that things have been moving too slowly in New Zealand, and major and important infrastructure and housing have been held back by structural and governmental regulation.

Much of this relates to the Resource Management Act 1991, which most politicians want replaced. Bishop’s answer is to essentially deregulate the sector and turbo-charge the ability of developers to get their projects off the ground. And in finding a way to do this, he’s picked up what the last Labour Government had already done with their own Covid-era fast-track processes and expanded that into a more permanent and extensive escalated process.

The new processes mean that three cabinet ministers (those responsible for transport, regional development, and infrastructure) can select a select number of development proposals to essentially get exemptions from normal resource consenting processes. An expert panel is also involved in advising the ministers and suggesting conditions to be placed on developers, but the three ministers have the ultimate say.

Bishop explained all of this in his column in the Herald yesterday, in which he paints a dark picture of the status quo, which justifies a new approach: “It’s too hard to get things done in New Zealand. Too hard to build new renewable energy, too hard to build roads and public transport, too hard to build houses and too hard to develop the sort of sensible economic development projects that provide jobs and growth” – see: Fast Track Approvals Bill – New Zealand has become an obstruction economy (paywalled)

To illustrate how the status quo needs radical change, Bishop is good at using anecdotes about the frustrations of a dysfunctional and bureaupathetic consents system: “I recently met a housing developer who had finally received consent after a three-year process only to have an official turn up on the very day earthworks were to begin and demand a Wildlife Act permit. That process took more than a year to complete. Such ineptitude would be funny if kids weren’t living in cars and a generation were not locked out of home ownership.”

Bishop has cleverly turned the tables on critics who has sought to tar the fast-track process as being about helping construction and mining companies to get their way. Instead, he sells his solution as being about improving housing availability, making roads safer, and decarbonising the economy to fight climate change.

He also puts forward a very clear explanation of how the new fast-track process will work as a streamlined “one-stop-shop” process for developers: “it doesn’t just deal with resource consents, it also deals with all the other things often needed for development, like conservation permits, heritage and so on. It makes sense to do all of that at the same time, rather than strung out over many years and with multiple different government agencies.”

Shane Jones’ populist approach

New Zealand First’s Shane Jones is the second biggest voice selling the fast-track proposal to the public. And although Bishop is the main architect of it, it’s been said that Jones, as Resources Minister, is the schemes’ “godfather”. Crucially, he was responsible for getting the scheme included in the coalition agreement between National and New Zealand First.

Jones’ sales pitch for the fast-track is less subtle than that of Bishop, and more populist, saying it’s about driving a metaphorical bulldozer through all the red- and green-tape to get things done for “the people”, especially in the neglected regions. He promises more jobs and economic growth as a result. It’s all very much in line with his “Make New Zealand Great Again” mode in which leaders need to break rules to get things done.

Jones takes delight in promising more consents for the extractive sector, including mining on conservation land, and appeals to New Zealanders, who he says are sick of environmental protections slowing down progress too much. In debating the new legislation in Parliament, Jones explained the new approach: “Gone are the days of the multicoloured skink, the kiwi, many other species that have been weaponised to deny regional New Zealand communities their right to a livelihood, their entitlement to live peacefully with their environment but derive an income to meet the costs of raising families in regional New Zealand.”

More famously, Jones has also referred to allowing land that is currently protected against mining to protect the Archey’s frog: “In those areas called the Department of Conservation estate, where it’s stewardship land, stewardship land is not DOC land, and if there is a mineral, if there is a mining opportunity and it’s impeded by a blind frog, goodbye, Freddy.”

Mike Hosking: The Most important thing the Govt is doing

The one person outside of government and industry circles who is almost a lone voice in championing the fast-track regime is Newstalk broadcaster Mike Hosking. He put forward his best defence of it this week, saying the proposal “might well be the most important thing this Government does” given that New Zealand’s has an infrastructure crisis and needs to get on with building and fixing things, which is what this bill is about – see: This Government was elected on change — embrace it

Hosking reminds us that the current Resource Management Act isn’t working, and so it’s important that we innovate to try new ways of getting on with creating economic growth and rebuilding the country. It’s a message that will resonate with a public that is impatient for change and transformation, especially given that this is a widespread feeling that “the country is broken” or in decline.

Hosking’s other key argument is to attack those that are questioning the fast-track proposal – he describes them as “incessant moaners” and “handwringers” who are holding back progress. Here’s his key point: “Submissions on the legislation closed last week and you can imagine who turned up. It’s the same people who believe not doing things is the preferred option. The same people who have held this country to ransom over their individual myopic view of what’s important to save, or treasure, or talk more about.”

The New Zealand Initiative: In favour of centralising power in Wellington

The pro-business lobby group and think tank the New Zealand Initiative has come out firmly in favour of the Fast Track Approvals Bill, saying that it’s “a necessary step to streamline decision-making for projects with significant economic benefits, and it should proceed.”

This group is normally an advocate for “localism”, devolution, and against the ethos of “Wellington knows best” – which means they might have been expected to rail against this concentration of power in the Beehive. But in this case, they support the Government taking back control so that they can push through development without cause for local participation and impediments in the decisions.

The Initiative’s main spokesperson on the issue, Nick Clark, has written a column for the Herald this month about how the bill might not be perfect, but it should be supported because it “represents an improvement on the status quo” – see: Fast-tracking for infrastructure fix is needed now (paywalled)

In talking about the concerning imperfections in the fast-tracking proposal, such as the increased likelihood of corruption, the Initiative concludes that these aren’t important enough to prevent the Bill from being implemented in its current form, especially given the urgency of New Zealand’s infrastructure deficit.

The Initiative therefore takes a highly pragmatic argument in favour of fast-tracking, pointing to, like Bishop, the many economic problems facing the country, which now means that a centralisation of powers is desirable in order to push through developments, even if they are opposed by locals.

Infrastructure Commission

Some fast-track supporters have used material produced by the Government’s Infrastructure Commission to show the need for the new reforms. Although the Commission doesn’t appear to have taken a stance on this major infrastructure issue, it has published a report on the problems with the existing resource management rules.

The report was prepared for the Commission by the Sapere consultancy company, and it shows that the current consenting process costs the economy about $1.3 billion per year. It also pointed out that over the last five years, the average time taken to get consent has doubled.

The Commission is also under pressure to come up with ways to speed up developments. A poll last year showed that 61 per cent of New Zealanders believe that not enough is being done to meet the country’s infrastructure needs. Priorities, according to survey respondents, were flood defences and new housing supply. For more on this, see Andrea Vance’s recent column, Why Nimbyism is the biggest risk to the Government’s fast-track regime (paywalled)

Business interests welcome fast-tracking

“Manna from heaven” is how the fast-track bill is being described by the chief executive of the mining lobby group Straterra, Josie Vidal. She says that “the country is in trouble. We need to get on and do some things”, and suggests that politicians have become too ponderous in their decision-making – see Brent Edwards’ NBR article, Opponents and supporters of fast-track bill want changes (paywalled)As to the criticisms of the bill, Vidal writes this off: “There is a lot of fearmongering from environmental groups.”

Similarly, Newsroom’s editor Tim Murphy has said: “This Govt is certainly making some people happy. The mining, marine aquaculture, roading, energy and land developer industries must be wondering whether they’ve died and gone to heaven with the new fast-tracking law.”

Certainly, businesses and other lobby groups have reacted very positively to the fast-track bill. Press statements have been put out in its support by Infrastructure New Zealand, Transporting New Zealand, Energy Resources Aotearoa, and Civil Contractors NZ.

Some iwi are also supportive of the fast-track, as many have economic interests in aquaculture and energy industry. For example, Ngāi Tahu has been reported as hoping to use the new fast-track to finally get the greenlight for its previously-blocked proposal for a massive salmon farm off Stewart Island.

The public’s appeal for “getting things done”

The fast-track regime is likely to be very popular with the public. There’s a widespread frustration with how little government gets achieved, and how society is held back by regulations. This is especially the case in terms of building and resource management consents.

Although the fast-track isn’t going to speed up or lower costs for homeowners wanting to obtain building consent from their local authorities, it will strongly appeal to many people who have been frustrated by their own experiences. They will be sympathetic to a government making red-tape-cutting reforms.

An editorial in The Press newspaper last week, explained how this frustration has been building prior to the fast-track proposal: “There is a genuine problem that the bill seeks to address. Few would disagree that infrastructure and development have become too slow and expensive in New Zealand. The bill is intended to speed up the decision-making process for projects believed to have significant regional or national benefits. They could include the likes of dams, mines and roads” – see: Editorial – The fast and the furious (paywalled)

The idea of “getting things done” instead of endlessly consulting and allowing bureaucracy to slow down developments will have a strong appeal to the public, according to The Press. It reflects, the newspaper says, why the public voted in a National-led Government: “It is an expression of this coalition’s self-image, which is about aspiring to rapid delivery rather than consultation. Action is preferred to talk and economists matter more than ecologists. The language is corporate and business-focused, rather than feelgood and inclusive.”

In this context, the Government’s “strongman” display of getting things done, and sweeping away objections, will appeal significantly to those in the electorate that feel leaders have been too weak in pursing the public interest in recent years. There’s a significant amount of anti-political anger and discontent, which is likely to support government initiatives that are less democratically or consensus-orientated, such as the fast-track.

This sort of populist attitude was evident in the IPSOS survey released last week, which showed there’s a rising appetite for strong politicians. The poll found that 54 per cent of people agreed with the populist statement: “To fix New Zealand, we need a strong leader willing to break the rules”. Respondents who were particularly inclined to agree included rightwing voters (60%), those on low incomes (66%), and Māori (73%) – see my column: Serious populist discontent is bubbling up in New Zealand

Similarly, the NZ Election Study found that in 2023 that 51 per cent agreed with the statement that “A few strong leaders could make this country better than all the laws and talk”. This was up from just 43 per cent at the 2020 election.

So, yes, there will be many criticisms of how the fast-track proposal is anti-democratic, lacks sufficient checks and balances, and could encourage corruption, but for much of the public, these objections will look like complaints about esoteric constitutional niceties. Instead, the strong public mood of the moment is to “just fix it”. Therefore, in terms of infrastructure development and kickstarting the economy, the approach of Shane Jones and Chris Bishop is “rip, sh*t and bust”, and this will appeal to an angry public that just wants to see politicians deliver things fast.

Dr Bryce Edwards
Political Analyst in Residence, Director of the Democracy Project, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington

This article can be republished for free under a Creative Commons copyright-free license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project (https://democracyproject.nz)