Dr Muriel Newman


Two weeks ago, the first day of racing of the Sail Grand Prix regatta in Lyttleton Harbour was cancelled due to the sighting of a Hector’s dolphin. That followed a practice day, where sailing was restricted to only 11 minutes. And on the final race day teams were again refused practice time.

The race area is a dolphin sanctuary and the race organisers had agreed to abide by the special protocols that were put in place.

However, world champion New Zealand yachtsman and SailGP Executive Director Sir Russell Coutts believes the restrictions were excessive and a symptom of a wider problem that New Zealand faces.

On the morning of the final race day, Sir Russell read out a statement on Newstalk ZB about the challenges he and the teams had faced. His full statement is featured as this week’s NZCPR guest commentary:

“Our people and our athletes care deeply about marine conservation. In addition to our normal marine mammal protocols, SailGP has had this extreme marine mammal management plan forced upon us in Lyttelton, demanded by the Department of Conservation, Ecan and Ngati Wheke for this event. Otherwise, SailGP would not be permitted to race. Other harbour users, including commercial users, are not subject to such protocols…

“Unfortunately, yesterday was another example of there being almost no balance in the decision-making – another example of New Zealand being handcuffed by unprecedented layers of bureaucracy and red tape.”

Sadly, for New Zealand, Sir Russell is right when he says our country is handcuffed by bureaucracy and red tape. The effects can be seen right across society and at absurd levels.

In an article, “Drowning in Red Tape”, the Herald outlined some of the ridiculous hurdles thrown at NZ King Salmon, which has finally gained a resource consent to build its salmon farm in Cook Strait after nine years of battling through the consent process. It will be a world first for farming the highly sought after Chinook king salmon species in the open ocean, where conditions are cooler and more conducive to growth. Once fully operational, the venture is expected to make a major contribution to employment and export growth.

The company described the resource consent process as “very robust”. But that’s a euphemism for the costly nonsense they were forced to comply with. Even though the operation will be located out at sea, they were required to produce multiple ‘expert’ reports on the impact their operation will have on the “natural character” of landscapes: “It’ll be over the horizon, there’s no landscape to see. You won’t be able to see it from the land”!

They were also compelled to “find common ground” with opponents, which, of course, included iwi. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out what that would have involved!

Another dreadful example of the crippling effect of red tape and bureaucracy can be found in the report on the response to Cyclone Gabrielle, which revealed the New Zealand Defence Force was not only unable to deliver much needed water supplies because it was not an “authorised water supplier”, but personnel were not permitted to assist locals in the clean-up operation, because they didn’t have access to full personal protective equipment!

When asked about Sir Russell’s criticisms during a post-Cabinet press conference, the Prime Minister agreed: “I think we have turned ourselves into a red tape and obstruction economy. We’ve got more work to do making sure we don’t put barriers and obstacles in the way of being able to attract worldclass events to New Zealand. It’s up to SailGP and those local authorities, which comprises a range of groups and interests, to work it out. When you’ve got 50 million people on TV and 20,000 at the event, being delayed a day isn’t a great thing.

“We want to build a strong pipeline of future major events for this country. It has huge advantages to us economically. I think it’s fantastic when they happen. So we want to encourage more. There’s 195 countries who actually try and make it work for them, and I think we can do a better job of that.”

ACT leader and Regulations Minister David Seymour was also critical of the “nonsensical regulations” that had interrupted sailing. He described a “crazy thicket of regulation that is deadening our culture” and he explained a key objective of regulatory reform is “to let our once proud can-do culture breathe again.”

New Zealand First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters believes the issue highlights how “overly influential bureaucratic processes” and “power-drunk government departments” are impeding the country’s economic development and international reputation.

“New Zealand needs to get back to being a ‘can-do’ country that prioritises common sense and productivity. Of course, there needs to be a ‘balance’ of all considerations, but ‘balance’ seems to have been thrown out the window.”

The Deputy PM claims the country has become “inward-looking” through “nonsensical moral and cultural roadblocks. Our economy and our international reputation are suffering in the face of pearl-clutching extremists and their dizzying sense of self-worth.”

And that’s the problem in a nutshell. New Zealand is suffering from ‘activist capture’. 

As a nation, we’ve allowed this to happen because some at the top of the political pyramid have themselves been activists, while others have lacked the backbone and focus to say enough is enough.

There’s been too much appeasement of minority interests: climate activists who claim the world will end if we don’t stop driving cars and eating meat. Maori sovereignty activists claiming ‘we-arrived-here-first’ privileges to mask their greedy ambitions to capture land and resources. Gay rights activists intent on indoctrinating children.

Such groups have been allowed to get away with destructive actions, that should never have been tolerated in a decent society.

Descending from the sublime to the ridiculous, the latest battleground is rainbow-coloured road crossings. Like advocates wanting Maori language road signs, the answer to anyone wanting to use road safety measures to make political statements, should be a firm ‘no’!

The reality is that those responsible for upholding the law need to deal firmly and swiftly with fanatics, otherwise activism escalates, controversy widens, and society becomes destabilised.  

Radicals exploit weakness. Appease them and they will take more and more until they capture control.

A case in point is local government’s Significant Natural Areas (SNA): Section 6 of the Resource Management Act (RMA) requires “the protection of areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna.”

While SNAs were intended to protect areas of national significance, thanks to the influence of radical environmentalists, they’ve been liberally applied to effectively confiscate private property rights from landowners.

To their credit the Coalition Government has now suspended any issuing of SNAs for three years, while the RMA itself is overhauled.

When the RMA was introduced in 1991 it was heralded as enlightened ‘enabling’ legislation. But it didn’t take long to be captured and used by activists to block progress.

An early victim was the Northern Motorway extension from Albany to Orewa. Opened in 1999, it took six years to battle environmentalists through the RMA consenting and objection process, and just two years to build. The cost of delay was estimated by Transit NZ at the time, to be $1 million worth of community benefits lost for every week the road was not opened.

What’s worse, is that in 2001, to appease the Green Party, Helen Clark’s Labour Government set up the Environmental Legal Assistance Fund, which uses taxpayers’ money to pay activist groups up to $50,000 to fund legal challenges to RMA applications.

That fund still operates today!

Without a doubt, the RMA has crippled progress in this country – at every level of society the process has been captured by minorities wanting to over-ride public or private interests and impose their radical worldview on others.

Fortunately, the Coalition is tackling the problem, not only by repealing and replacing Labour’s overhauled RMA – which was even more damaging than the original – but also, through a Fast-track Approvals Bill to enable faster decision-making for projects of significant regional or national benefit.

However, specifically excluded from the fast-tracking process is any activity “that would occur in a customary marine title area under the Marine and Coastal Area Act 2011.”

The implication of this is significant. As a result of the Marine and Coastal Area Act being interpreted more liberally by Judges than Parliament intended, Customary Marine Titles are likely to cover the entire coastline of New Zealand. That means future Governments will no longer have the right to consider coastal projects for fast-tracking, but will instead need to go cap in hand to the multiple iwi groups that will end up sharing title to our coast.

And while the Coalition has signalled it plans to “fix” the law and return it to what Parliament intended – namely only a minority of claims in remote areas of the coast would qualify for Customary Marine Title – this reform was not included in their 100-day plan, nor is it in their recently announced 36-point plan.  

With multiple High Court claims expected to be decided this year, this matter is urgent.

Right now, for example, a hearing is underway for control of the Whangarei Harbour. In spite of the area being one of the country’s oldest operational ports, with, over the years, an oil refinery and even a power station, that hasn’t stopped the fifteen applicant groups who are seeking Customary Marine Title from claiming they have each used the area exclusively and continuously since 1840.

These applications are indicative of the opportunism that underpins the vast majority of the 585 claims for the coast that are waiting to be resolved.

Back in 2004, there was a great deal of controversy when the iwi ‘owners’ of Lake Taupo announced their plan “to charge a licence fee to commercial operators using the water and airspace above it.”

While the Government stepped in with a deal, since the Marine and Coastal Area Act includes in the definition of the marine and coastal area, the seabed, the water space and the airspace above, and with Customary Marine Title holders having the right to ‘derive a commercial benefit’ from their area, there are growing concerns over the direction in which successful claimants may wish to take their new found power.

With the right to veto resource consent application in their area, without any shadow of a doubt, Customary Marine Titles are a license to print money.

In the case of the Whangarei Harbour, the awarding of Customary Title to multiple iwi would also have a major impact on plans to re-commission the Marsden Point Oil Refinery, to expand Northport, as well as any thoughts of relocating the Devonport Naval Base to Whangarei.

Given such uncertainties, it is essential that the claims process is halted until the Marine and Coastal Area Act changes have been introduced, to prevent Customary Marine Titles being awarded to opportunistic claimants that do not meet the high standards intended by Parliament.

In his statement, Sir Russell Coutts alluded to the influence of iwi: “I find it astonishing the amount of influence iwi have over the authorities here in New Zealand. The Department of Conservation would not allow racing in Lyttleton unless SailGP had approval from the iwi.”

He also said, “I suspect most New Zealanders don’t realise the full implications of such a stance.” 

He’s right.

If the public really understood the extent to which iwi have manoeuvred themselves into positions of influence, where they can not only dictate what goes on, but also make serious self-interested demands from both public and private interests, they would be shocked.

It has to stop.

To ensure future coastal projects in New Zealand are not condemned to the endless delays, on-going litigation, and serious demands for bribes that are likely to occur if the Marine and Coastal Area Act is not changed, the Coalition needs to immediately suspend the claims process while the legal and bureaucratic nightmare that’s being created by activist judges is sorted out.


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Dr Muriel Newman established the New Zealand Centre for Political Research as a public policy think tank in 2005 after nine years as a Member of Parliament. A former Chamber of Commerce President, her...