Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Government by press conference

Back in April, the government announced that they were banning future offshore oil exploration. Like many, I welcomed this decision - we need to decarbonise, and slowly shutting down the oil industry is a necessary step to that. But the process they followed to do it all seems a bit Mickey Mouse:

The Cabinet has made no decision on ending oil exploration, documents being released today will show, with April's announcement made on the basis of a political agreement between the coalition parties.


"There was no Cabinet decision," a spokesman for Energy Minister Megan Woods said.

"The decision not to offer future offshore oil and gas exploration permits was made between the three coalition parties, and the Minister [Woods] was simply notifying Cabinet of that decision as well as noting that future cabinet decisions would be required to implement that decision."

The spokesman added that there was no requirement for the Cabinet to make a decision, but a Cabinet paper would be developed on implementing the decision.

Which is technically true - it is entirely up to the Minister which areas they choose to offer for public tender and which tenders they accept. At the same time, this is both a significant and controversial decision, and the Cabinet Manual is clear that such issues must go to Cabinet and be consulted with other relevant departments. The government would no doubt argue that their coalition process met the consultation requirements and that everyone was happy with the decision, and they'd probably be right - the purpose of Cabinet consultation is to ensure that everyone is kept in the loop and knows what decisions they are collectively responsible for, and that's certainly been done. And yet, fundamentally, this is not how decisions are supposed to be made in our system of government. And it raises the question of exactly why the government chose to sidestep Cabinet in this manner. And if it was to avoid their obligations under the Public Records Act and Official Information Act, then that is looking very dubious indeed.

But it also raises the question of whether the decision has any legal meaning. Sure, the Minister has chosen not to offer offshore areas in this year's block offer, but that's not the only way permits are assigned. Anyone can apply for a permit, anywhere (they can even do it online), and nothing is stopping oil companies from doing that to offshore areas not offered. And if they did, the Minister would have to assess it according to the statutory criteria, and would not be able to decline it simply on the basis of the government's announcement. There is a process by which the government can legally ban exploration for certain minerals in certain areas, but a quick check of Gazette notices shows that the government has not done this. And that's what's most appalling of all: we have a "decision", but it appears not to actually have been implemented in any way. It exists in PR and public consciousness, but not apparently in law. And the latter is a betrayal of the government's voters who supported it. I don't think its too much to expect that when the government says it will do something, it actually fucking does it, rather than simply pretending to. The government needs to follow up this decision with an actual legal implementation, and as quickly as possible, before the petroleum industry simply bypasses it.