Peter Cresswell
Peter Cresswell

ACTing Libertarian

You don't normally hear ACT MPs talking about saving kiwis by eating them. In fact, you don’t normally hear MPs talking like that at all.

Nor do you normally hear them calling for the Resource Management Act to be dumped, something this magazine has been vigorously arguing for some time. But Gerry Eckhoff, ACT list MP, has recently called for both these, prompting both invective and applause in response - and not in equal measure.

The (partial) applause was from TFR editor Lindsay Perigo, who bestowed upon him half a Free Radical Award, and urged him to continue to "fundamentally rethink" these things. The invective came from everywhere else.

So, in the name of allowing people to show that they deserve their half-applause we asked Gerry to answering some searching questions.


TFR: What were you doing before you were elected to parliament in 1999, and what attracted you to the ACT Party?

GE: I had a security blanket wrapped around me. I had always been criticising Governments, all Governments, and ACT offered the opportunity to move ahead from farmer and high country trustee politics. ACT's was the first bit of common sense I had heard spoken in Parliament … ACT's role as I see it is to act like fluoride, and to 'really get in' and to stiffen the resolve of governments to get smaller. To ultimately disappear, perhaps, except for defence and foreign affairs … The role of the ACT party is to bring to NZ's attention that we must not perpetuate failure. To offer new ideas that could change NZ for the better if only we, as a country, have the courage to implement them.

TFR: But that assumes that there is a resolve within governments to get smaller. Shouldn't your role be one of activism, to actively agitate for smaller government, in parliament and on the ground? Like mercury, perhaps, rather than fluoride?

GE: Fair comment.

TFR: And most New Zealanders still don't see any need to get the state out of their lives. To make any headway, here at TFR we like to say the revolution this country desperately needs is inside people's heads. Any comment?

GE: Certainly in a democracy you have to convince people, you have to get inside their heads that is the challenge. It is very hard to say what triggers a change of heart in people, usually it is a catastrophic event but as the expression 'change of heart' suggests, your message is not really convincing until you appeal to the emotional drivers. I am sure that the remarkable success of the Greens is a result of their emotional appeal - save the whales, save the planet. Very powerful ideas at the emotional level. Of course, it is very easy for a political party to imagine that emotional appeal is all that is required but to make real change you need an underpinning of good ideas and solid principle. Intellectually sound ideas delivered with feeling, with passion -- that seems to me to be the best strategy

TFR: You've recently taken over as ACT's environment and local government spokesman, announcing that ACT will be sharpening its focus on the key issues of the environment, local government and the Resource Management Act. Is this a job you've been eager for, and on what will your sharper focus be directed?

GE: Yes, the RMA encapsulates all that is wrong with NZ -- which is bureaucratic control with low productivity. Too many believe that Government and committee control equals security and growth…. I've witnessed 20 years of abuse and no respect for the job that landowners do. I'd like to diminish the role for the state in the environment and local government -- to have a downsizing effect and to promote property rights, trust and respect for other's rights.

TFR: It has been said that an environmentalist is one who already owns their bush cabin. Any comment?

GE: Once they own their own cabin they tend to believe "no sacrifice is too great for other people to make on my behalf."

Eat More Kiwis!

TFR: You're probably most well known for advocating the 'eating of kiwis.' You proposed that "the Kiwi is farmed and protected and its habitat improved to accommodate its increasing numbers," and before you could say 'I'll have mine on a toasted bun, thanks' we saw headlines about roast kiwi, kiwi on toast and finger lickin’ kiwi. Pete Hodgson said of you in Parliament "that leaves me wondering whether the member has kangaroos in his top paddock." Did the response surprise you?

GE: I thought Hodgson would understand the proposals as he is, or was, a vet. Media? No never mind the substance - feed the trivia.

TFR: And were you saying simply 'eat more kiwis'?

GE: Absolutely not. Farm them to raise the numbers to such a level that people will wonder what they can do with them.

A number of people are 'allowed' by DoC to manage wildlife. Howard Grouther and his yellow-eyed penguins is one example. However, ownership is out.

TFR: Would it be fair to say that you were somewhat ambushed on this issue?

GE: Yes I was but I won the shoot out! …You see, the only risk to private conservation is success, and what is more compelling than success? Private conservation works and state control fails. The evidence is everywhere … Logic is the best weapon. No species that has been domesticated, farmed and privatised has ever been lost to civilisation.

TFR: No extinct cows?

GE: Exactly. You only have to look at Dr John Wamsley saving marsupials and other endangered animals in Australia. The score is Earth Sanctuaries, 10 species saved; state control, nil!

TFR: Other successful examples?

GE: Well, sheep and cattle dogs and cats and any rare breed of chook, bird or introduced animal. Peacock Springs in Christchurch is one model set up as a trust. Then there is Roger Beattie's "Kowhai Vale" on Banks Peninsular (See TFR#4). David Wallace in Cambridge has been very innovative with his 'floating' pest control fence … Weka and kiwi are both endangered in the sense that present policies will see them disappear. The rhino story is a fascinating one involving private interventions. The Scottish salmon fishery is another very interesting story and a study in the critical impact of private property rights. Of course, our own fishing quota system is a success story for the value of private property rights for promoting long term conservation values

TFR: Any idea what kiwi tastes like?

GE: No, except that in a book called Something of Myself, Rudyard Kipling described a meal he had at a hotel between Napier and Taupo during his visit to New Zealand last century. He said the roasted Apteryx australis was very tasty.

Dump the Resource Management Act?

TFR: Let's talk about the RMA. You said: "The RMA cannot be tinkered with, or just tweaked. We need a fundamental rethink. We must do everything we can to dump the RMA and replace it with something which works." What's the greatest problem with the RMA, and what led you to say it must be dumped?

GE: The RMA effectively places private property in to a form of collective ownership. 10 years of bad outcomes. Show me one example of the RMA having saved, promoted or secured anything. There are no measurable outcomes … The RMA tends to attenuate property rights.

TFR: Attenuate? Or violate? Do you agree that it effectively nationalises private property?

GE: Yes in some ways but only the property that others want. The green-eyed monster rears its head too often in these matters.

TFR: What do you see as the state's role WRT property rights?

GE: Property rights means you are free to do as you choose without 'damnifying your neighbour's land.' Property or water. No role except upholding them as sacrosanct.

TFR: Is dumping the RMA ACT policy yet?


GE: No

TFR: What, for you, would indicate that a replacement for the RMA 'works'?

GE: People free to do their own thing as long as they do not disturb the rights of their neighbour. … We are leaning toward the use of common law solutions but its not accepted policy - yet. … And dump the RMA totally, that is my personal preference.

TFR: How confident are you of seeing that become accepted ACT policy?

GE: Reasonably so. I have not consulted every one of my colleagues, as yet, on this issue but it fits well with core ACT philosophy…. The common law approach sits well, of course, with Libertarian thinking. I

TFR: Absolutely! Now, Hopper Brothers, who are the builders and promoters of the wonderful Waterways Projects around the country, announced recently that their Whitianga project has cost them a staggering $2 million in consultant's fees to date, and this before a sod has even been turned. The RMA has encouraged enormous growth in the employment of 'resource consultants' 'arborists,' and so forth. Do you have a view on this growth, and on the cost of consultants?

GE: Yes, but you couldn't print it!

TFR: Dumping the RMA will put an awful lot of these consultants out of work. TFR has no problem with that, but how about you and your party?

GE: No problem. It would more likely affect those who are planners than those consultants who have something worthwhile to contribute.

TFR: Let's be blunt. TFR's delight at your comments is qualified in part because you talk about replacing it "with something which works." Your 'half-award' citation comments: "How about not replacing it at all, & simply enshrining private property rights in the Bill of Rights instead? That way, pollution, if that's what you're concerned about, can be dealt with as a property rights violation in common law, in a way that REALLY 'works' & really WOULD constitute a 'fundamental rethink.'" How about that?

GE: Totally agree. The trick is to get the Nats to go along with common sense.

TFR: Do you agree that such a change would require that the Bill of Rights be changed to allow it to strike down offending legislation? If so, is ACT prepared to make this party policy as well?

GE: No. My advice is that we should not make the NZ Bill of Rights 'pre-eminent'. It might be a good thing to add property rights to the New Zealand Bill of rights but the sort of change you suggest would be very difficult, would impact on all our law and what is more it is unnecessary. An alternative is to insert into a bill repealing all or part of the RMA, a clause similar to the infamous 'treaty clause' from the SOE Act, for example:

"Nothing in this Act shall permit the Crown to act in a manner that is inconsistent with the principles of private property rights."

However, I cannot make policy on the hoof. Nevertheless, I am sure that a lot of people in ACT would favour a common law approach to RMA issues.

TFR: Almost all good stuff, but given what you've already said, how could the explicit protection of property rights possibly be considered 'unnecessary'?

GE: No, what I said was that inclusion of Property Rights in the New Zealand Bill of Rights 'might be a good thing' … That way the judiciary would be obliged to consider property rights when interpreting other statutes. What is unnecessary is to change Section 4 which says that no law can be 'impliedly repealed or revoked ... by reason only that... [it]... is inconsistent with any provision in the Bill of Rights.' There is the option of the treaty type clause as I've said. Listen Peter I am a high country farmer not a high court judge and I think I've bitten into a pretty big issue here already. I'm not flinching but if I hear you correctly you are asking me to make a commitment to entrenching the New Zealand Bill of Rights and that is a big job even for legal experts, I can do without that added complication especially when the option is to write a clause into any new legislation that ties it back to the bill of rights. I just want to stay focussed on the RMA.

TFR: You called for the National Party to join ACT in committing itself to ending the costly, bureaucratic nightmares caused by the Resource Management Act. Any response from National?

GE: None

TFR: No surprise there. What hope do you have that your call will be heeded?

GE: Even less than the above

TFR: Does Simon Upton's departure for pastures abroad makes this easier or harder?

GE: A little easier. Upton has apologised for the RMA in his valedictory speech. I see Nick Smith filling Upton's shoes as the greenest (sic) 'blue' in Wellington

TFR: What hope do you have that the RMA can be dumped? What in your view needs to be done to allow this to happen?

GE: It will take time but I am ever hopeful. It will take public pressure. Federated Farmers, Employers, Landowners all need to wake up to the power they, as individuals, possess.

TFR: Here at TFR we're impatient. What in your view can activists be doing on the ground now to make this happen? And what will you be doing to use the power that you have as an MP?

GE: Close the gates! Advise landowners to deny access to picnic spots and favourite fishing holes and recreational opportunities. You will hear the screams from Coal Creek (Gerry's home locality - Ed.).

TFR: Property rights have been damned for years. How important do you see it to build up a new respect for their importance? And how difficult? How important for example do you think work like Tom Bethell's 'The Noblest Triumph' is?

GE: Hugely so. Bethell should be compulsory reading - oops! sorry - strongly recommended reading.

TFR: There is a danger I see that property rights, if misunderstood, effectively comes to mean eminent domain, or more simply 'compensation for takings' -- which I believe is Stephen Franks' position. There are recent cases in the US where 'crony capitalists' such as Donald Trump have State governments exercising eminent domain on their behalf in attempted seizure of private property - in Trump's case to build an Atlantic City casino. In Pittsburgh, 60 private buildings and 120 small businesses were threatened with confiscation, and saved only after a public campaign by the Institute for Justice. Do you not see a similar danger if an 'eminent domain' view of property rights takes hold here?

GE: Eminent domain exists now in NZ and always has done. I personally accept my obligations and the role of government as long as government accepts and recognises my rights and freedoms.

TFR: So how do you view these US violations? Aren't they a warning to us here not to treat property rights as simply 'compensation for takings'?'

GE: Yes indeed they are a warning. For years, the state has violated 'free men'. For years the courts, who should uphold the rights of the individual, have failed to do so as they are subjected to parliamentary control. Put simply governments or councils should not need to compensate for takings as they would not acquire land or property with out the un-coerced consent of the landowner. They then buy the rights as any one else might buy property rights.

TFR: ACT leader Richard Prebble said recently that the party "believed the Resource Management Act was completely out of control … It's an issue that ACT owns because we've been alone in predicting the RMA would be a failure, as it has been." Now, given that work on the RMA was begun by the Fourth Labour Govt, of which Richard Prebble, Roger Douglas, and Ken Shirley were a significant part -- and Ken Shirley in particular was an avid enthusiast for the damn thing -- don’t you think Prebble's remarks are, at the very least, disingenuous?

GE: No. All people are entitled to change their views once obvious failure presents itself. Too few have the courage to change.

TFR: And too may politicians don't say what they really mean. There is no apparent acknowledgement that they were once eager supporters, rather than predictors of its failure. Frankly, how can we believe Richard this time?

GE: The Act promised good outcomes. Of course the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

TFR: Good? By what standard?

GE: Yes, good is a relative, value laden word but in this context I mean the standard that society imposes by a thing called democracy. Of course I am here to promote my party's values and standards.

TFR: So what successes can the ACT Party point to that might corroborate Prebble's comment that they 'own' the issue?

GE: They have the courage to say that the RMA was wrong. We were wrong to support it. RMA is now the 'law of unintended consequences'. Give me a little time in the job.

TFR: Okay, but …. as Lindsay Perigo put it before the last election, "ACT people helped write the damn thing in the first place, ACT supporting-consultants profit from the damn thing, and the ACT party continues to oppose dumping the thing." ACT have been, to put it bluntly, full of talk in this area for a long time. In 1996, for example, Muriel Newman told the Herald that the RMA "steals New Zealander's property rights" -- about which she was right -- and within a week she had been muzzled by the party. ACT Deputy Ken Shirley has been the party's environment spokesman for some time, and has been remarkably quiet all that time. Do you accept that criticism, and if so what has changed?

GE: I can only answer for myself.

TFR: Put bluntly then, why should we believe you're serious about dumping the RMA this time?

GE: We need help to change or dump the RMA. Unless we get a majority in the house, of course, then we would just 'do it.'

We have hesitated, it is true, but only because there were other high profile issues capturing our attention and perhaps initially we hoped that some beneficial change could be better achieved by taking a conciliatory position. It has not worked for us so its time for a change of approach. That is the honest thing to do.

I only hope I am up to the job.

TFR: And so say all of us!!

GE: Well, I look forward to meeting you in Parliament. That has to be the very first step to changing any law. I certainly look forward to that, as well to practical advice from TFR :->

TFR: Oh, you can be assured of that! But given that the Libertarianz party has been saying since its formation that the RMA should be shredded, do you think it is truly fair to say that ACT 'own' this issue?

GE: The Libertarianz party is not in Parliament. ACT is.

TFR: Ouch! But you're a politician! Are there some signposts on the way so we know you're going down this road?

GE: Yes, we have made a start. You sound like you are claiming some moral 'high-ground.' I do not think that is the issue; it is recognising failure and moving on -- engaging in the battle, that is the really important thing I do not adhere to the conventional wisdom in light of evidence that points in another direction.

Talking to TFR is a sign I think. This journey will not be made in secret. I am sure you and the public of NZ will be hearing from me again on this issue.

Private Conservation Initiatives

Dump the Resource Management Act!

Common Law & the Environment

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