Stacking the odds at the consenting casino

Opinion: The odds are stacked against the environment in the new fast-track consenting regime argues Nicolas Lewis

Croupier laying cards out on a gambling table

There are times when New Zealanders should stop and take stock. The release of the government’s new fast-track consenting bill, its proposed ‘fast-track consenting one-stop shop’, is one such time.

The legislation will give ministers powers to consent any projects that they have the time or desire to consider.

It is designed to slash consenting costs and delivery times on important infrastructure projects.

The frustrations and costs of consenting processes are real, but the Bill has provoked widespread criticism – especially from those concerned with environmental effects. The Environmental Defence Society labels it a ‘war on nature’.

As the initial flush of opposition fades, it’s worth considering what else is at stake.


Centralising the powers of consent into the hands of ministers strips powers from communities ... sidesteps democratic checks and balances and eliminates acquired public rights, replacing them with ministerial fiat.

Playing poker with our chips: Democracy erased

Fast-tracking development proposals trades-off short-term costs and frustrations for the risk of the longer-term costs of getting things wrong. These include the opportunity costs of foreclosing on better investments as well as making expensive environmental, social, and financial mistakes. Fast-tracking will enable and increase the risk of short-termism and bad decisions – perhaps even encourage them.

Centralising the powers of consent into the hands of ministers, strips powers from communities and local and regional government, and undermines commitments under existing legislation to Te Tiriti and community participation. It sidesteps democratic checks and balances and eliminates acquired public rights, replacing them with ministerial fiat.

As well as a potential war on nature, the bill launches an actual assault on what is at best a paper-thin democracy in New Zealand.

For a Government elected on a platform that constitutional change must involve extended public debate, the legislation ought to be rejected as authoritarian. In a week when New Zealand has witnessed the demise of Newshub and job cut announcements at TVNZ, the power grab has a deafening resonance.

So why take the risk of bad decisions and democratic jeopardy?

The players and the rules: Rentier capitalism

Cutting red tape is a longstanding political trope used to support a developmentalist agenda. The new legislation will support developers and investors to get their projects consented. This may include projects directly in the public interest, such as public-private investment in green-energy or public transport infrastructure, but it will be dominated by developments that involve investment in land (or sea).

These will range from green-field and suburban housing developments, shopping centres and high-rise blocks in places near you, to building data centres for global service providers, mining on the DoC Estate, off-shore fish farming, deep-sea mineral extraction, and all points in between.

What is planned is a rebooting of a rentier-driven commodity export economy (dairy, seafood, oil, minerals etc), alongside property development, and road transport. The primary beneficiaries will be a certain fraction of big capital and its agents. Those on a winner will include banks, asset management funds, tech giants, mining and energy corporations, infrastructure providers, and global land bankers.

This is the land economy on which our nation has been built – first by colonial dispossession and theft and more lately by subdivision, consenting, and stealth. It is what Auckland legal scholar Jane Kelsey calls The FIRE economy – finance, insurance, and real estate. At its heart lie economic rents.

Economic rents are returns to monopoly ownership, regulatory advantages, and land and other rare resources (natural or social). For economic geographer Brett Christophers argues in his excellent book, Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays for It?, the pursuit of rents is the dominant logic of contemporary capitalism. It has always been at the heart of Antipodean settler capitalism.
Rentiers do not compete for returns on innovation, entrepreneurship, or risk.

They pursue returns on established wealth and power by using them to gain or secure control over scarce resources or infrastructure – commonly assets formerly owned or funded by the public. These may range from technology platforms to roading, utilities, fishing quota, and development consents.

In California the source of today’s economic rents is tech; in New Zealand it is land or sea.

Stacked cards?

Fast-tracking is a determination to consent. The power to do so is to be put in the hands of a small cabal of ministers with developmentalist portfolios.

At best, they will make sound decisions about what projects to solicit and/or then make judgements and set conditions that restrict or mitigate the community and environmental impacts of consent.

Unfortunately, the cast of rentiers, industry, lobbyists and associated interests assembling in the casino provide little cause for trust. The dice are loaded. Those with the financial or political capital to command ministerial interest will get access to the VIP rooms.

In Covid Britain they called this type of fast-tracking and backchannelling a “VIP”. lane. It didn’t end well for the government or the public. 

While New Zealand is blessed with an absence of Baronesses and a tradition of this level of corruption, there are grounds for fearing that war has been declared on what is left of public ethics of integrity and social and spatial equity.

Banning Tina from the table

Ending more optimistically, the new measures could conceivably enable an enlightened minister to extract a higher price from rentiers for access to national resources and natural monopolies than is currently the case.

Increased royalties, place-based community investments, or community shareholdings might be made the price of consent. The savings in costs from fast-track consenting might be returned to communities or used to fund ecosystem recovery or experiment with new ‘offsetting’ economic activities.

What Minister Jones calls a shift from ‘cancel’ economics to ‘can-do’ economics could potentially stimulate experiments in the new economic imagination invoked by recently elected Greens co-leader, Chlöe Swarbrick. The ministers might use their powers to guide investment into core domestic-facing activities such as health, education, or food provision, which some have called the foundational.

Minister of Regulation, David Seymour, responded condescendingly to Swarbrick’s call to reimagine the economy by insisting that she think ‘deeper and harder’.

Echoing the neoliberal creed, he meant that there is no alternative (TINA). A radical response from New Zealanders might be to join Swarbrick in taking him at his word, because that is what is required to overturn the rentier capitalism that dominates our economy.

Contesting what is meant by the ‘national interest’ seems an appropriate starting point. Another might be to begin with the different economies that might be delivered by Māori leadership.

Whatever we do, it’s time to call time on Tina.

Professor Nicolas Lewis, School of Environment, Faculty of Science

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Stacking the odds at the consenting casino, 15 March 

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