Local government powers to constrain GM projects may be revisited

Scientists should keep an eye on new legislation aimed at restoring the promotion of social, cultural, economic and environmental well-being of communities to the statutory purpose of local councils.  The legislators may be pressed to strengthen local authority powers to determine what happens in their regions on issues such as genetic modification

Two new Bills also aim to re-introduce the ability of councils to collect wider development contributions and make it easier for them to bring in online voting.

The Local Government (Community Well-being) Amendment Bill is the one designed to restore the “four well-beings” to the statutory purpose of local government.

Previous National-led administrations had narrowed the statutory purpose of local government to focus only on service delivery and not broader community well-being, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said (see HERE)

“By inserting the four well-beings back into the Local Government Act we acknowledge the valuable role local leadership has to promote the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of citizens and communities,” she said.

“We are confronted with various challenges as a country such as the impact of population growth, climate change and ageing infrastructure. Quality of life outcomes as well as regional growth and prosperity require a broader focus in the way councils meet the challenge of setting priorities and planning for the future.”

There are implications for the constraint of research involving genetic modification.

Before the election, Labour said it would  maintain the status quo of new GM techniques requiring EPA approval for use.

Labour also declared it would maintain the ability of councils to decide on economic grounds whether and where release and commercial use of GMO plants and animals is allowed.

It would also protect farmers who do not wish to adopt GM technology by ensuring the liability regime for use of GMOs that cause harm is strengthened.

Green Party policy is that genetic engineering should occur only in a contained laboratory setting.

“Our food and environment should be GE Free,” the Greens say.

A second Local Electoral Matters Bill addresses the design, trial and analysis of new voting methods for local elections, and will make it easier to trial electronic voting, including online voting.

In November last year, GE-Free Northland expressed its delight after Federated Farmers withdrew two “vexatious” appeals to the Court of Appeal to challenge GMO provisions in the Northland regional policy statement and the council’s right to have the region declared GE-free. 

GE-Free Northland, along with appellant Whangarei District Council and other interested parties including Tai Tokerau mana whenua and the Soil & Health Association, at that time had successfully defended the right of local authorities to manage the outdoor use of GMOs in their region after Federated Farmers sought a ruling in 2015 that the Northland Regional Council had acted outside the law. 

Federated Farmers had argued that the Environmental Protection Authority had sole responsibility for the regulation of GMOs under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, and disputed the right of councils to put in place precautionary GMO provisions, and the right of local mana whenua to identify Issues of Significance.

The Northland Age reported (HERE):

The broad suite of interested parties standing behind the Whangarei District Council, the robust existing case law (unequivocal decisions by both Principal Environment Court Judge Newhook in 2015 and Justice Mary Peters in the High Court last year) and recent amendments made to the RMA (confirming the High Court ruling) had led the federation to the view that they were likely to have materially reduced the prospects of the appeal succeeding, he said.

A spokesman for GE-free Northland, Martin Robinson, said:

“Parliament acknowledged last April that local councils can regulate or ban outdoor use of GMOs under the Resource Management Act, in keeping with the wishes of farmers and other ratepayers.”

Councils across the country accordingly were now free to act on their duty of care to their constituents and the environment, putting in place a much-needed additional tier of local protection against the risks of outdoor use of GMOs, Mr Robinson said.

Whether the Government might be pressed to make sure councils are free to act on these matters by fortifying their powers is among the questions raised by the announcement of new legislation.

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