Isobel Ewing: Bill English is trying to steamroll the Supreme Court

DoC attempted to swap 22 hectares of Ruahina Forest Park conservation land with 170ha of private farm land, so it could be flooded to make way for a dam.
DoC attempted to swap 22 hectares of Ruahina Forest Park conservation land with 170ha of private farm land, so it could be flooded to make way for a dam. Photo credit: Forest & Bird

OPINION: Prime Minister Bill English has indicated he will ride roughshod over a Supreme Court decision in order to push through the Ruataniwha Dam project.

He wants to change the law because he's not happy with a call made by the highest court in the land.

This country is run by three branches of Government - the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

They are meant to operate independently from each other in what is called the "separation of powers", designed to prevent abuses of power.

This raises the question: What is the point of an independent judiciary if the Prime Minister steps in as soon as a court ruling doesn't go the way he wants?

Labour says it is arrogant, and the Greens say they will fiercely oppose the "cynical and destructive law change".

Here's the background. DoC wanted to swap 22ha of high-value conservation land for 170ha of private farm land so it could be flooded to make way for New Zealand's largest irrigation project.

Isobel Ewing: Bill English is trying to steamroll the Supreme Court
Photo credit: Forest & Bird

Mr English has said it is "eminently sensible to increase the net conservation value by trading away lower value for higher value conservation land".

Here is a fact: That's the precise opposite of what DoC was proposing to do.

As is noted by the Supreme Court ruling, the 22ha chunk has towering podocarps, rare oxbow wetlands, braided river and a plethora of native species like fern birds, kārearea and long-tailed bats.

Based on that description, labelling this piece of land as having low conservation value is technically a lie.

Constitutional expert and former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer says the 80-page decision makes it clear that the 170ha chunk isn't nearly as valuable as the land that was going to be swapped and flooded.

Mr English also said "everyone thought the legislation meant that you could trade a lower conservation piece of land in return for higher conservation piece of land."

Here is another fact: No one thought that.

DoC has always been able to swap out land that never had conservation value or lost it somehow in a slip or fire.

In order for conservation value to be revoked, there must be proof that the values that afford it that protection are gone.

What DoC tried to do in this case was swap specially protected land that still had its values intact.

That's why the Supreme Court said no.

So the lesson is that the Government should be careful when trying to change the classification of high value conservation land.

But it seems the Ruataniwha Dam may be more important than the law or the separation of powers.

Parliament is sovereign - and it seems Bill English may use that to get what National wants - a dam

Isobel Ewing is a Newshub political reporter.

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