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A Royal Commission into the RMA: speech to Environmental Defence Society Tipping Points Conference

Thursday 10 August 2017


Tēnā koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa; nga mihi nui kia koutou

There’s been a lot happening in this election campaign. One of the things I’m glad about is that water is finally an election issue.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me on their doorstep or on the phone that they’re concerned about water.

They’re concerned about how dirty our rivers and lakes are, and, in Canterbury, about rising nitrate levels in our aquifers.

They’re concerned about our best water being bottled and shipped overseas.

The Greens want people to be able to trust the water coming from their taps. We want to end the situation where 45,000 New Zealanders have to put up with faecal contamination in their drinking water at least once a year.

We’re ashamed that New Zealand’s gastroenteritis rates are some of the highest in the OECD.

In July we announced the first part of our plan to protect and preserve New Zealand’s freshwater. It focuses on drinking water.

The Greens in government would ensure drinking water sources are protected from land use activities that pollute them with pathogens, sediment, and nutrients.

That means strengthening the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management and the National Environmental Standard for Drinking Water. 

Councils must prioritise drinking water in water allocation decisions and their management of land uses in source catchments.

It means making the protection of water quality in our aquifers a matter of national importance in section 6 of the RMA. Rivers, lakes, and the coast appear in section 6 but not aquifers, even though they provide 40% of New Zealanders with their drinking water.

It means boosting funding for smaller communities and marae who struggle to find the money to pay for water supply infrastructure and technical advice.

We’ll put a 10c per litre levy on water bottlers who take and profit from our best and purest freshwater.

And we’ll undertake a wide process of engagement with iwi and hapu and the public to determine what constitutes a fair charges on other commercial uses of water, how that’s best levied and how Treaty rights should be provided for.

You’ll be hearing more from us soon about the issue that really has the country talking – what to do about those 6 million dairy cows.


We all know that kiwi, kokako, and ti kouka/the cabbage tree are living treasures.

Under National, 142 of our native species have slipped closer to extinction.

The Department of Conservation, working with councils, community volunteers and landholders, has a central role in turning that around.

National has really put DOC through the wringer, cutting millions of dollars from the department’s baseline budget in real terms, forcing the layoff of more than 200 staff and the closure of field offices.

In government, the Greens will double DOC’s natural heritage management budget over five years, and fund an extra 720 rangers. DoC knows how to do the extensive pest control that’s needed to give our native plants and wildlife the chance to thrive. It’s lacked the resources to do so.

We will help fund the vision of Predator Free New Zealand by 2050 properly, with a tourist levy – with international visitors paying an extra $20 at the border

It will raise $65 million annually for the Predator Free NZ in the next four years, and provide an additional $22 million to support tourism infrastructure.

The Greens will also restore DOC’s ability to use the RMA to act as an advocate for nature, instead of leaving this vital work to EDS, Forest and Bird, Climate Justice Taranaki and other NGOs.



It’s not every day I get to talk to an audience interested in the RMA.

Today, I am announcing that the Green Party in government will go back to first principles and begin a total, ground up assessment of the legislation that governs how we as New Zealanders live within our environment.

We will initiate a Royal Commission of Inquiry into environmental management and New Zealand’s environmental planning laws.

The RMA was a ground-breaking piece of legislation in its day.

But it was a creature of its time and now, in the twenty first century, it is less and less fit for purpose.

It is, to borrow some words from Gary Taylor, “clunky, slow, unresponsive, and unstrategic.”

It’s not dealing with our greatest challenge and our greatest opportunity: climate change.

Some in this room will remember when the Emissions Trading Scheme was established, and the climate protections were taken out of the RMA.

Since then, emissions have skyrocketed. By 19 percent just since National took office.

That might look like a flat line to Nick Smith but it doesn’t to me.

We are in the ludicrous situation where the RMA is no barrier to someone building a new power plant that burns fossil fuels like coal. The Act prevents councils and the courts from considering its effects on the climate. 

The heart of the Act – the purpose and principles of sustainable management in Part 2 – is a strong foundation.

But the RMA’s effects-based regime and the overall broad judgement approach are not working.

They are not working to protect the climate, our rivers and lakes, safeguard native plants and wildlife on private land, or ensure we have compact and well planned cities that are great places to live.  

There have been a plethora of ad hoc changes to the RMA which have made the law cumbersome and more complicated.

People are increasingly shut out of decisions that affect their neighbourhoods and the places they care about. There has been an exponential increase in ministerial powers to dominate local and regional decision making and undermine local democracy.

25 years on, it’s time for a comprehensive and in-depth review, based on wide public consultation and international best practice.

The Productivity Commission’s review of the RMA has focused on economic efficiency rather than social and environmental outcomes. It hasn’t had the broad public engagement which changes to our major environmental and planning law deserve.

Royal Commissions enable robust and thoughtful, independent analysis which inform Parliament’s law making.

The Buildings (Earthquake Strengthening) Act was based in recommendations from the Royal Commission into the Christchurch Earthquakes and major changes to our health and safety laws were based on the Royal Commission into the Pike Mine Coal Mine Tragedy (though in both cases, it would have been good if the government had picked up on more of the positive changes the commissions recommended).  

Whether a Royal Commission finds that we should modify the RMA, retain and extend its purpose and principles and build a new framework around them, or throw it out and start again, there is a bottom line principle: as a human society we exist within the environment.

No environment, no economy. It is our responsibility to protect it.

The Green Party is the only political party which is 100% committed to do that.

In government, we will have to compromise. But not on our core principle of ecological wisdom, enshrined in our party’s charter.

When we are in government, there are five major things we will do to implement the principle of ecological wisdom.

The first is to clean up our rivers and lakes, regenerate wetlands, safeguard our aquifers and encourage the changes in land use that requires.

The second is to ensure our indigenous plants and wildlife and wild nature thrive, safe from pests and further habitat loss.

The third is to set New Zealand on a path to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

The fourth is around safeguarding the health of our oceans

And the fifth is to begin the process of updating the legal frameworks that protect our natural environment to help bring Aotearoa back from the tipping point.

Resource management legislation that is fit for the future must surely include legal recognition of nature’s rights.

Just as people have a fundamental and inalienable right to "life, liberty and security of person", we can extend these legal protections to natural entities. 

The Whanganui River.

Te Urewera.

Outstanding natural entities like mountain ranges, forests, and rivers have a legal right to be protected from harm and pollution.

They have a fundamental right to exist peacefully and prosper. Just as you and I do.

We are privileged in Aotearoa New Zealand to have concepts like kaitiakitanga that we can build new law systems around.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi challenges and gives us a responsibility to do that.

It creates an enormous opportunity to begin to redefine how we live on this Earth of ours.

This is a kaupapa that Green co-leader James Shaw is absolutely committed to.

In his first speech in Parliament, James said:

There is always controversy about the expansion of rights. Whenever the status quo is threatened there are always doomsayers warning that civilisation will collapse, or vested interests predicting that the economy will be destroyed.

We in the Green Party – perhaps more than ever after these last few weeks – know this.

And it only emboldens us. It makes us stronger and more determined to do what is right.

We will have a crack at reforming the welfare system to end poverty in New Zealand; and we will have a crack at the RMA.

We want to see a new framework of legal personhood for our environment and a body of case law developed around it by the specialist Environment Court, an Environment Court which returns to centre stage, rather than being side lined as it has been under National. 

Gary Taylor spoke yesterday about how the 1980s created a revolution in how we think about environmental management.

With the Green Party at the heart of the next progressive government, it will be time for another environmental revolution.

No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa.