One day in Parliament: 3 specialist subjects

While politicians have to be able to talk about anything and everything, as on Mastermind they all have a specialist subject.

And sometimes it can take a while for Parliament to wade its way through the Girl Guide Association (New Zealand Branch) Incorporation Amendment Bill or the Gas (Information Disclosure and Penalties) Amendment Bill before it gets to the stuff you are interested in.

Thursday was Dunedin Labour list MP Rachel Brooking’s day of jubilee as not one, not two, but three issues she has taken an active interest in got to the top of the Order Paper.

The first, a special debate on the inquiry on the Natural and Built Environments Bill, has been — as Ms Brooking noted — postponed many times.

The environment select committee delivered its report back in November, and a carefully considered 70 pages it had to be, given more than 3000 individuals and organisations made submissions and there were 301 in person appearances.

The fact there was such high interest in something that is not even the finished product — the legislation is a dry run for what will eventually be a complete overhaul of the Resource Management Act — suggests Parliament might perhaps have moved a bit faster.

On the flip side though, reimagining how the country manages its land, water and air resources should require more than a few minutes thought.

And indeed, as Ms Brooking noted, there has been a lot of thinking going on here already.

A year ago, building on the findings of an earlier report which Ms Brooking helped draft, Environment Minister David Parker proposed replacing the much-maligned RMA with three new Bills.

The select committee inquiry Parliament debated on Thursday was into an "exposure draft" of the first proposed law change, an unusual process but designed to try to find the dangers lurking in the long weeds before the Government clears the legislative section to build new resource management legal infrastructure.

"This exposure draft process gave the select committee and all the submitters a real chance to feed into that bigger policy development that we don't normally get as non-members of the executive, and I think that is was really useful," Ms Brooking told Parliament.

"It was, of course, not perfect, because we only had part of the bill, but it was very useful, and we've heard a range of different suggestions for the things that we thought could be improved."

Minutes later, Ms Brooking was back to opine during the second reading of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (Hazardous Substances Assessments) Amendment Bill.

Apart from demonstrating that legislative drafters need to work a bit harder at coming up with snappier names for Bills, it also shows that the script writers need to come up with better material: even Ms Brooking, who loves complex detail, felt compelled to agree the Bill was "dull but worthy".

It does make a small but significant change though, expanding the Environmental Protection Authority’s ability to assess, and also to reassess, whether or not chemicals should be in New Zealand and if so, how they should be used.

With that despatched, Ms Brooking then got to snatch a quick lunch before being back on duty in the afternoon to speak on what is now the Crown Pastoral Land Reform Act.

This is an area she has taken a special interest in, partly due to inclination and partly due to the fact that the Government has very few MPs based in geographic proximity to the mostly high country alpine land affected by the law change.

Having a collection of Auckland and Wellington-based MPs speaking on an issue which is a touch paper for rural grievances presents Labour with a perception problem, one which Ms Brooking, a regular visitor to Central Otago, can alleviate in part, but only in part.

The various stations affected by the law change operate on Crown-owned land with a right of exclusive occupation, but subject to a 33 year right of renewal.

Labour and the Greens argue the law change will enable ongoing, sustainable, and responsible pastoral farming and respect mana whenua relationships with the land: National and Act New Zealand, on the other hand, regard it as an unconscionable trampling of property rights based on an assumption that farmers do not have the best interests of the land at heart.

Ms Brooking spent a lot of time examining the concept of the "inherent value" of the land, a key plank of the legislation, and also on proposals for a more hands-on approach from Land Information New Zealand to management of the land and improving its relationship with farmers.

"We know that a lot of these farmers have a fine merino wool that they export to the world, and a lot of that is based on New Zealand's clean, green image," she said.

"They certainly really felt very deeply about that and put a lot of work into improving their environments."

National, on the other hand, has plenty of MPs who feel those farmers have been badly let down: Selwyn MP Nicola Grigg set the tone by calling the law change "utterly, utterly, ridiculous".

Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean has been as active on the topic as her assistant Speaker duties allow, and in the House on Thursday Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds and Southland MP Joseph Mooney took up the cause.

" This bill is about an ideology— whether the Crown knows best how to look after this important part of our country or whether it's experienced intergenerational farmers who have looked after this country," Ms Simmonds said.

"These precious parts of our country are by far better being looking after by farmers who understand the nature of how to look after these pastoral areas.

Mr Mooney, in whose electorate much of this land is, made a similar point.

"There has been no real consideration by this Government that leaseholders, who are often multi-generational guardians of the land, might be better than the Department of Conservation or Linz [Land Information New Zealand], something that anyone who has visited these properties, as I have, would know to be true."

This war of words is not over — various regulations to put the Act into effect are yet to be finalised — but for Ms Brooking at least, her day’s battles were finally over.

 

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

 

 

 

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