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Carter: Urgent Debate Speech – Whangamata Marina

14 March 2006 Speech

Speech For Urgent Debate – Whangamata Marina

Delivered: House of Representatives, Wellington

Madame Speaker,

As the Minister of Conservation, I am charged under the Resource Management Act with protecting the public interest in the spectacular coastline of New Zealand.

As part of that responsibility, which I take very seriously, I am required to make the final decision on restricted coastal activities under the RMA – including those activities that will occupy public space on the coast, and involve large scale dredging or construction of structures.

My office gets roughly 25 of these applications a year, and I have declined one – an application to build a marina in Whangamata Harbour.

I turned this application down because having looked at the issues involved in the proposal, the way the Environment Court approached them, and the evidence, I was not satisfied that allowing use of the public's coastal marine area for this development would be appropriate in terms of the RMA.

I am conscious that in making this decision, I am going against a recommendation of the Environment Court, but the law requires the Minister of Conservation to exercise an overall judgement on certain coastal development matters that is distinct from that of the courts.

I have fulfilled my statutory duty and made an overall judgment in this case.

The reasons for my decision are twofold.

First, the marina requires a salt marsh to be turned into a car park.

The value of this salt marsh to the area is heavily contested. Three experts before the Environment Court said it was valuable and one, the expert put up by the applicants, said it was not.

The Environment Court in its judgment highlighted the difficulty it had in coming to a decision about the salt marsh. In the end, the Court favoured the applicants. I did not.

My judgment was that the salt marsh is valuable and important to the ecology of Whangamata Harbour.

My second reason for declining the application was because of the impact the proposal would have on Maori and the shellfish beds in Whangamata.

The Marina requires extensive dredging. Initial construction could remove up to 167,000 cubic metres of seabed. A further 6000 cubic metres per year will have be removed on an ongoing basis. It requires the construction of a channel that would cross Whangamata Harbour and sever shellfish beds.

Once again there was conflicting evidence presented to the Environment Court on these matters. The court chose to go one way, and it was a direction I could not agree with.

It is my judgment, that there would be an inappropriate impact on the shellfish resource and on local Maori who use the area.

The scale of this impact is evident by the fact that iwi have been consistent in their opposition to the marina proposal from the start. What is more, they have been unified by their opposition, a sign of how deeply they feel about
Whangamata and its significance to New Zealand.

We need to respect those views in this House, and also acknowledge that a great many members of the general public also share them.

Madame Speaker, since announcing my decision, I have seen hysterical claims that I have subverted proper process and committed a constitutional outrage in turning down this application.

I utterly reject those claims. The proper process is laid down in law, and the law requires me to be the final decision-maker on restricted coastal activities. Each and every Environment Court judgement that comes to me on restricted coastal activities comes as a report and recommendation only.

Parliament's intent in the Resource Management Act was quite explicit. The Minister of Conservation must make the final decision, and the Courts themselves have required that of the Minister.

In Hasting District Council versus the Minister of Conservation in 2002 the High Court said this:

"If the Minister is not lawfully and properly able to depart from the recommendation of the Committee or the Environment Court, there would be no point in vesting in (him or her) the ultimate decision-making power, as section 119 [of the RMA] does. Although the Minister must take into account the recommendation of the Committee or Court, [he or she] is not bound by them. [He or she] is not merely a rubber stamp. [He or she] is able, indeed (he or she) is required, to exercise [his or her] own judgement."

I have done just that.

I have followed proper process, I have upheld the law, and I am quite prepared to consider further advice from the courts should this issue proceed to judicial review, and return to me.

It is not I who is subverting proper process or committing a constitutional outrage, it is those like National MP Nick Smith who are now seeking to take the extraordinary step of retrospectively changing the law to allow this proposal to proceed.

Just what is Nick Smith's interest in this matter?

His own involvement in it in the 1990s as Minister of Conservation is very murky indeed.

He has made a great deal noise about the fact that the Department of Conservation did not take part in the Environment Court proceedings on the marina proposal.

But what he has not told the people of New Zealand is that DOC was opposed to the marina because of its environmental impacts and lodged an appeal against the Waikato Regional Council's approval of it in 1997.

It was only after pressure on DOC by its minister, that the department withdrew its appeal and settled with the Marina Society. The minister at the time was of course was none other than Nick Smith.

I challenge him to make it clear to this House today why he pressured DOC to withdraw from the process, and exactly how he was fulfilling his responsibility to the public on whose property this marina was to be built.

Madame Speaker, members of this House need to remember that the coast is not privately owned. It is a resource that belongs to each and every citizen of this country, not just a few.

It is a resource that New Zealanders value, and that forms a part of our national identity. We are an island nation, and countless New Zealand families either live or holiday on the coast. Most of us have a favourite beach or piece of headland. Most us care deeply about what happens there, whether the National Party accepts it or not.

I suspect that this is the reason why the previous National Government under Jim Bolger passed the Resource Management Act with the ministerial decision-making power included. I know that it is the reason why the power has been retained in every subsequent amendment to the Act.

Given the extent of public interest in the coast, it is entirely appropriate that a publicly elected individual, accountable to the people, makes the final decision on what will happen to the coast, not the courts.

As the courts have already said, it is entirely appropriate that this person can say no to applications, otherwise what purpose is served by his decision-making power in the first place.

Whilst I did not take into account wider public concerns about what is happening on the coast in my decision on the Whangamata marina, I am aware that the passions the issue has invoked are common to many other proposals.

There has been considerable anxiety expressed by communities around the country about the amount of development on the coastal line, the impact this is having on the character of the coast and on the traditional kiwi lifestyle. Because of this, I initiated a review of New Zealand's Coastal Policy Statement shortly after becoming Minister.

The New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement is the only national policy statement issued under the Resource Management Act. It guides councils in their decision-making about what types of activities will be allowed, controlled or prohibited in coastal areas.

It has been in place now for the better part of a decade. In that time, the pace of and trends in coastal development have changed considerably. I believe it is prudent to now re-examine how the policy is working, and what we want for our coastline.

An independent review of this policy has been completed and policy development is under way. I expect to be able to release a new draft coastal policy statement for public consultation later this year, through a Board of Inquiry.

The Board of Inquiry will consider public submissions and hold hearings nationwide. I intend to give it broad terms of reference.

That way all New Zealanders who care about the coast can have greater confidence in the system that ensures development of it is sustainable.

ENDS

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