Parliament must protect regions right to chose

Dominion Post, May 20 2016

OPINION: A Hawke’s Bay initiative to add value to the region’s food exports will likely be axed if Parliament gives the Minister for the Environment sweeping new powers under the Resource Management Act.

In response to strong market demand for GM Free products, Hawke’s Bay producers want to protect the region’s current GM Free food producer status.

Hastings District Council supports our ambitions to gain premium positioning for our region and is the first council in New Zealand to introduce rules that ensure the district’s fields remain free of GMOs for the life of the local plan.

Environment Minister Nick Smith wants to stop the regions from establishing GM Free zones. Yet he could not convince support parties that removing regional choice on this issue make sense. They would not sponsor changes to the Resource Management Act to that end, so the Minister was forced to take the proposal off the table.

Now he is working on a backdoor route to quash GM Free zones. He wants sweeping new powers over the regions, set out in s360D of the RMA reform bill.

In modern democracies, those powers are known as Henry VIII clauses.  For good reason. They hark back to a time when a weak English parliament handed Henry Tudor the power to bypass democratic process and rule by decree over the country.

Minister Smith wants to bring Henry VIII to New Zealand’s resource management laws so he can overrule the regions without having to convince his parliamentary colleagues that it is in the regions’ or the country’s best interests to do so.

GM Free regional zones, such as our Hawke’s Bay initiative, would be a likely first target were Parliament to indulge him and make section 360D the law of the land.

The Minister has it in his head that councils that create GM Free zones in their territories would be duplicating the Environmental Protection Agency, the national regulator for GM releases.

The Chief Environment Court Judge did not think so. Nor did the Minister’s officials, who admitted to Hastings District Council that the regions cannot create GM Free food producer zones under the national leglsiation. That is only possible under the RMA.  In short, there is no duplication.

But with Henry VIII-style powers, the Minister can overrule regional initiatives on a much lesser charge than perceived duplication.

If the Minister considered it “undesirable” that a local plan deals with the same subject matter as national legislation, those local rules could be axed – even if they deliver real benefits.

That is, Wellington could deprive Hawke’s Bay exporters of economic opportunities, simply because they are not to the Minister’s liking.

Allowing a government of the day to rule by decree on matters that are crucially important to the regions  – as Hawke’s Bay’s GM Free status is for our producers – would be disastrous for local economies.

As business people, we agree that regulatory duplication – where it is real – can be costly and frustrating.  But Parliament does not need to give the Minister the carte blanche he is after to tackle that.

He can go to Parliament and present the case for law change. And if he can convince a majority of MPs his proposals have merit, the law will be changed.

In the question of GM Free regions, the Minister has not been persuasive.

Hawke’s Bay food producers are not the only exporters opposing the Government’s bid for increased power over the regions. Fonterra, DairyNZ and Beef and Lamb New Zealand have condemned the rules are heavy-handed and unnecessary.

We are looking to Parliament to consign the Government’s bid for excessive power over the regions to the wastebin.

Henry VIII should be kept to the history books and well away from our resource management laws.  Too much rests on those laws to made be so vulnerable to the whims of a minister.

Meanwhile, whatever the current Minister’s ideological beef with GM Free regions, he needs to get over it.

Like it or not, consumers in our key markets don’t want a bar of GM and don’t expect products from Hawke’s Bay to contain GMOs or be contaminated by them.

As food producers and exporters, it is our business to know the market place and Wellington should be looking at ways to support – not undermine – our mission to create greater value for our region and the country as a whole.

Bruno Chambers and Will MacFarlane are pastoral farmers and Pure Hawke’s Bay board members.

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