Democracy not negotiable

It takes something significant to unify the various voices around Dunedin City Council's table.

Last week it was, ironically, one of New Zealand's most divisive pieces of legislation, the Resource Management Act, and its proposed amendment, the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill.

The majority of the city's councillors were present at Monday's planning and regulatory committee meeting where the council's submission to the Bill was discussed.

Launched late last year, the Bill is part two of the National-led Government's two-part plan to reform the RMA.

The RMA became law in 1991.

While it has been both praised and pilloried since its inception, the need for legislation to ensure the country's resources are managed in a sustainable way is seldom questioned.

What is questioned is how far the RMA goes in offering that protection - not far enough for some, too far for others.

Regardless, there is little debate the RMA, as it stands, is not as efficient and well structured as it could be.

The Government has made no apologies for its desire to amend the Act.

It failed to implement significant RMA reforms in 2012 following stout opposition from other parties.

After National's big election win in 2014, Prime Minister John Key said RMA changes would again be a focus.

This Bill is the vehicle for those changes.

Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith introduced the Bill by citing widespread reports of the RMA's "cumbersome planning processes and the time and cost of consenting''.

The proposed changes would reduce that time and cost in many cases while tightening rules around which affected parties were entitled to inclusion in a given consenting process.

The result, Dr Smith said, was an enhanced Resource Management Act improving both environmental management and economic growth.

These are goals most New Zealanders would readily support and applaud.

So what is the council's opposition based on?

Councillors have said they fear environmental benchmarks will become too flexible under the proposed changes while the powers of a local body's own district plan would be watered down.

They are also concerned the Bill will centralise power in Wellington at the expense of local bodies, but the biggest stumbling block is their concern citizens affected by a given development could be shut out of consent hearings.

Under the Bill, non-expert submitters could be cast aside.

The result, councillors fear, is residents wanting to be heard on a development they believed would affect them would not have that chance unless they possessed expert knowledge or could afford to hire someone who did.

And here lies the conundrum.

There will be few New Zealanders who disagree with what Dr Smith says the Bill will do: improve environmental management and economic growth.

There will be few New Zealanders who can't bring to mind examples of infuriating, expensive and protracted RMA hearings.

But there would also be few Kiwis who don't cling steadfastly to New Zealand remaining a fair, democratic country offering access and voice to all citizens, not just those highly skilled, educated or deep-pocketed enough to have their opinions considered valid.

Hearings panels already have the power to ignore submissions they consider frivolous or vexatious.

Are further limits to submissions required?

Democracy has been consistently championed, fought for and celebrated by New Zealanders.

But not because we hold it as the cheapest or most efficient form of government.

It is neither.

Democracy is difficult and comes with a hefty price tag.

While efficiencies should be sought wherever possible, we should be wary when they come at the expense of democracy.

The Government is making many considered and clever proposals in this Bill.

Eroding people's right to have their say is not one of them.

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