Monday, February 16, 2009

DoC, Meridian, and the RMA

Radio new Zealand has a scoop this morning on a secret deal signed between Meridian Energy and the Department of Conservation [audio] which saw the latter withdraw their objections to the Project Hayes windfarm in Central Otago in exchange for $175,000. A few thoughts on this:

  • Firstly, these sorts of arrangements are common, and in one sense are the whole point of the RMA. As I have noted before, the RMA is an attempt to implement Coase's Theorem. It is predicated on the idea that planning is "simply" an exercise in balancing competing property rights, and that the most efficient outcome is gained by letting one side buy the other out.
  • Secondly, it is not at all unusual for DoC to negotiate and settle on windfarm consents. For example, DoC initially expressed concerns about the Te Rere Hau windfarm's possible impact on local native birds. They withdrew their objection in exchange for an agreed condition to the consent allowing ongoing monitoring to determine that impact (in other words, they got what they wanted). But you would not expect them to settle where there were major conservation impacts.
  • Jeanette Fitzsimons is right: the deal should not have been secret. DoC is a government department, and has an obligation to act transparently. But this is what happens when you infect the public service with private-sector values through SOEs...
  • Finally, the real problem here seems to have been Labour's insistence on a whole-of-government submission in support, which completely overrode DoC's concerns and forced them to shut up. Under the circumstances, they may very well have got the best deal on consent conditions that they could. But they should not have been put in that position by the government. DoC is supposed to advocate for certain values regardless of what e.g. the Ministry of Energy thinks, and if they have concerns on a project, they should be free to express them. That's what "contestable policy advice" means.
As for what we should see out of this, I can think of two things: firstly, a directive that government departments should not agree to secrecy on such deals. If they negotiate a settlement which meets their concerns, they must make the whole deal public (and business with its culture of secrecy and unaccountability can take a hike). Secondly, a greater commitment to the principle of contestable policy advice, and the strongest argument winning. But with National cuddling up to the coal industry and wanting to ram projects through (or rather around) the RMA process, I don't regard either as particularly likely.