Up until the 1970s public policy clearly prioritised economic gain through increased resource-based production above environmental stewardship. ‘Think Big’ was a government programme of energy-related projects designed to reduce New Zealand’s dependence on imported oil, and to broaden the basis of exports. It focused on using offshore Taranaki gas reserves for industrial development, and building the Clyde dam in Central Otago for power generation.
Damn the dams
In early 1970s there was considerable opposition to hydroelectric dams, as illustrated by this sarcastic letter to a newspaper:
‘Cromwell could become the underwater capital of New Zealand if it were protected by a large concrete dome before being inundated: the railways could provide waterproof locomotives to keep the connection to the over-world open. The town would of course have to be lit and heated by an artificial sun, and to power it, I propose a dam across the outlet of Lake Wairarapa, which would form New Zealand’s largest lake, stretching back as far as Palmerston North. An added advantage would be the flooding of Pahiatua [Prime Minister Keith Holyoake’s electorate].’
Several of these projects were hastened through the approvals process by the National Development Act 1979, which allowed the acceleration of projects believed to be in the national interest.
The Waitangi Tribunal
The price of downplaying environmental consequences was brought to public attention in the 1980s by an unexpected source – the Waitangi Tribunal. In the ‘environment reports’ in a series of findings on Māori claims against the Crown, the tribunal outlined the costs to health and the environment of careless development practices. In 1983 the first of these reports – on the Motunui reefs (used by Māori for gathering shellfish) in north Taranaki – directly challenged proposed offshore industrial waste discharge plans from Think Big projects. Subsequent reports, on the proposed disposal of treated sewage from Rotorua city into the Kaituna River (1984), and on the discharge of sewage into Manukau Harbour (1985) highlighted the legacy of years of water pollution from towns, cities and industry.
The Environment Act 1986 established the Ministry for the Environment and the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. This legislation marked a move toward incorporating environmental values in the public policy process.
The Resource Management Act
The Resource Management Act 1991 was hailed as the first comprehensive piece of legislation in the world to require sustainable management of resources. It replaced about 80 earlier acts and orders. It requires all developments (except those for minerals whose use is covered by the Crown Minerals Act 1991) to avoid, mitigate or remedy adverse environmental effects. Consents for use of water, air, soil and land resources must be obtained from the relevant regional, city or district councils, with provision for public participation in the decision-making process.
The resource management process was criticised by developers as time-consuming and expensive, and by environmentalists as giving too much encouragement to developers. Nevertheless, it gradually ended many of the more conspicuous environmental problems of earlier years. An amendment introduced into Parliament in 2009 was intended to speed up the process.
Biosecurity and climate change
The Resource Management Act does not regulate all interactions between the economy and the environment. Strict border biosecurity measures to protect primary industries such as agriculture and forestry, as well as pest management strategies, were authorised under the Biosecurity Act 1993.
Another issue not foreseen by the Resource Management Act was climate change. Separate legislation and government initiatives appeared in this area as it became apparent that the threat of global warming was influencing the relationship between the economy and the environment.