The Never-Ending Suburban Dream: Dr Nick Smith's purported determination to make housing more affordable by "reforming" the Resource Management Act has been widely derided as little more than a National Party recommitment to the urban development model of the 1950s and 60s. In short, to quote Peter Dunne, "a developers' charter".
THE LAWYERS and the environmental lobbyists are already gnawing at Dr Nick Smith’s proposed changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA). Forewarned by the National-led Government’s first, abortive, foray into environmental law reform back in 2013, a forearmed Opposition has this week re-joined the battle with renewed energy.
The United Future leader, Peter Dunne, has warned against turning the RMA into a “Developers’ Charter” – a potent political riff upon which his parliamentary colleagues have been only-too-happy to extemporise.
Has the Prime Minister, rubbing shoulders with 1 percent of 1 percent of the 1 Percent at Davos, given equal heed to the venerable Member for Ohariu? Given that few politicians’ appreciation of middle-class New Zealanders’ tics and tells is stronger than Mr Dunne’s, if John Key isn’t paying attention to him, then he should – and soon.
Not that, in the brutal numbers game that determines whether a piece of legislation succeeds or fails, Mr Key needs the endorsement of Mr Dunne. The parliamentary arithmetic of environmental law reform requires no complicated figuring. The Act Party’s grace-and-favour MP for Epsom, David Seymour, has already signalled (well in advance of any actual shouts of “Division called for!”) that he will be supplying Dr Smith with the single vote necessary (in addition to National’s 60 votes) to ensure the passage of the Government’s environmental reforms.
Which is, when you think about it, extraordinary. With sixty MPs, National’s current parliamentary caucus is, by historical standards, a large one. It is also slavishly obedient.
Outside of the armed forces and large private corporations, it is remarkable to find a group of sixty strong-willed individuals who can be relied upon absolutely to do exactly as they are told. Especially remarkable when doing exactly what they’re told could very easily cause the seats that a number of them hold to change hands.
Readers of a certain age will recall National Party MPs like Mike Minogue and Marilyn Waring, Simon Upton and Ruth Richardson, who were willing, in the absence of any acceptable compromise, to cast their votes against their own Government’s policies.
It has been a very long time indeed since a National Party politician “crossed the floor” in any kind of procedurally meaningful context. For many years now absolute caucus discipline has not only been assumed – it has prevailed.
Such robotic compliance is not good for the health of National’s caucus; the wider National Party organisation; nor, ultimately, for that of parliamentary democracy itself. Voters need to believe that there are at least some MPs whose definitive allegiance is to values and principles more enduring than the arguments of their Party Whip. On matters crucial to both the social and the natural environments, the practice of representative democracy should rise above the crude calculations of purely partisan arithmetic. It should be about reason and science; about being persuaded by the evidence and securing the greatest good for the greatest number.
Replacing New Zealand’s much admired RMA with a “Developers’ Charter” would be about none of those things. On the contrary, it would be about using the legislative process to advance the interests of a section of New Zealand society which has, for more than sixty years, grown extremely wealthy (and dangerously influential) by convincing the National Party to continue following a model of sprawling urban development, based on the single-story detached dwelling and the private automobile. As a template for sustainable urban growth, it was already out-of-date when the First National Government adopted it in 1949.
Economically-speaking, the model only works by transferring vast public subsidies into the bank accounts of the private land speculators, property developers, builders and roading contractors who are its indefatigable champions.
Unfortunately, the greed of this corrupt system’s beneficiaries has led them, like all racketeers, to jack up their prices to unaffordable levels. The consequential crises, both social and environmental, are dominating the headlines.
The solution to the problem of unaffordable housing is not to gut the RMA, as the urban-sprawl lobby would have us all believe, but to make it fit for the purpose of managing the introduction of a more rational, sustainable and affordable model of urban development. Since this model will, inevitably, require massive investment from the public, it must also be answerable to the public.
Peter Dunne understands this – even if Dr Smith and Mr Key do not.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 January 2015.