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Environment Ministry seen to be 'laundering' money

Media Release - from the Centre for Resource Management Studies

Environment Ministry seen to be 'laundering' money, says report

The Environmental Legal Assistance fund is seen to be "laundering" government money, and is increasing the "imbalance" between landowners and well-funded lobby groups.

In a report released today, the Centre acknowledges that the Fund was well intentioned, but in practice has been either abused, or more importantly, has been seen to be abused.

Because the fund is administered by the Ministry for the Environment, many perceive the grants to be used by the Ministry to promote its environmental agenda by "laundering" money through private lobby groups. While this is almost certainly not the case, the perception is damaging to trust in public administration in general, and to trust in the fair administration of the RMA in particular.

For example many were surprised to find the MfE had funded the Coromandel Watchdog group to lodge an appeal with the High Court challenging an Environment Court decision in favour of the Crown Minerals department of the Ministry of Economic Development.

Also, many ordinary landowners, and groups like Federated Farmers, feel "bullied" when their local Council's decisions on the preparation of a Plan are appealed to the Environment Court by national lobby groups who have been generously funded by MfE, even though these groups pay no rates and own no land in the district.

To avoid these unfortunate perceptions, the report recommends that:

- The present Environmental Assistance Fund be closed down and a new "Resource Management Legal Assistance Fund", to provide financial assistance to groups mounting actions before the Environment Court, should be established.

- This fund should be administered by the Justice Department.

- Groups should have to demonstrate genuine "need" for sufficient funds to promote their case rather than a claim to an "imbalance" of resources.

- However, groups would have to demonstrate they have widespread support and sufficient commitment to make a significant contribution to their cause. Hence grants would be on a dollar for dollar basis. (The well established principle of matching funds.)

- The fund should be limited to groups seeking to balance the quality of evidence and improve the legal focus in cases where the application or appeal is proposed by a taxpayer funded organization, such as the Department of Conservation or Transit New Zealand, or where it is clear that the use of the fund will create a net public benefit, such as the recent rerouting of a road to reduce damage to one of Auckland's volcanic cones.

- The fund should not be available to national lobby groups to oppose the decisions of local councils who can be presumed to best represent the interests of their communities.

- All groups should be required to demonstrate "standing" on the basis that their members are directly affected by the proposal or plan. (This would not prevent groups calling on outside or national groups to provide expert evidence.)

- Any grants made from such a fund should be subject to total transparency, and full disclosure, to reduce the potential for conflicts of interest, and to discourage actions based on false claims and information.

- Parliament should reintroduce "security for costs" in Environment Court actions, or make the granting agency responsible, in the last resort, for the payment of any costs awarded against any recipient of grants from the Resource Management Legal Assistance Fund.

Our aim is to stimulate vigorous debate and promote informed opinion.


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