Nick Smith accused of power grab over change to NGOs' environment legal fund
Environment Minister Nick Smith has been accused of a power grab, after giving himself control over which non-profit organisations can receive legal aid to challenge environmental decisions.
The Environmental Legal Assistance Fund, set up by the Labour government in 2001 as part of a deal with the Greens, gives non-profit groups financial aid to advocate for "environmental issues of public interest" at the Environment Court or boards inquiry.
Until recently, final decisions on applications were made by the Ministry for the Environment's chief executive after advice from an independent panel.
However, in a written response to a question from the Greens, Smith said he had not renewed the chief executive's delegated powers in July and would make final decisions himself with the panel's advice.
Environmental law expert Simon Berry said the change was part of a wider "aggregation of power by the minister" on environmental issues, such as proposed Resource Management Act changes.
"He's now written himself into the script via the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill to be able to call in planning processes and so-forth - that's never happened in New Zealand before, that's always something that's occurred at a local level."
Non-profits planning to challenge projects supported by the Government, such as the Ruataniwha dam, would be "pretty cynical" about the new approval process, Berry said.
Green Party environment spokeswoman Eugenie Sage said it was wrong of Smith to give himself the power to veto challenges to "quite high-impact and controversial and environmentally risky developments".
'CLEAR CONFLICT OF INTEREST'
"It's a clear conflict of interest, and it's potentially politicising the legal process in a way, and I don't think it's acceptable."
Sage said Smith had "substantially increased his powers" at the expense of independent panels and local councils, removing checks and balances on executive power.
"Why have an independent panel if their decisions aren't going to be implemented by MfE - why have a minister second-guess the panel?"
In a statement, Smith said the new process was the same as used for other funds, such as the Waste Minimisation Fund.
Of the 11 decisions Smith had made since July, all had been "consistent with the recommendations of the panel".