Politics | Fast-track bill

Quarry company J Swap’s fast track plea after donations to Shane Jones and NZ First

Shane Jones is one of three ministers with decision-making power in the proposed Fast Track legislation. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

This article was first published by RNZ.

A NZ First donor wants Fast Track legislation to free up permanently protected land for quarrying.

J Swap, a company involved in quarrying, wants land protected under QEII covenants to be available to quarry. It donated $11,000 to NZ First in December, after the coalition was formed.

It also gave $5000 to NZ First’s Shane Jones in August 2023 and $3000 to National’s David MacLeod in September 2023.

The proposed Fast Track legislation is touted as a “one-stop shop” for approving infrastructure projects. It would sit over a range of existing acts and regulations and would mean an application would only need to go through one process for approval instead of several consents under the existing system.

If the Fast Track Bill goes ahead as proposed, Shane Jones will be one of three ministers who has a final say on whether projects go ahead, and will be able to refer projects to be fast tracked. National’s David MacLeod was chairing the Environment Committee hearings into the bill until he was stood down for failing to declare donations.

Permanently protected land

Land owners can apply to have areas of their properties protected in perpetuity through the QEII Trust. Once an application has been accepted the land can’t be developed, even if ownership changes.

QEII Trust chief executive Dan Coup said the trust accepts applications where private land has high conservation values. It is especially important for the types of habitat which aren’t part of the conservation estate, he said. Roughly 70 percent of New Zealand land is privately owned.

“The things that are left in the low country near the coast, around rivers, the bits of biodiversity, particularly that are there tend to be really rare because all of that land has been really heavily altered by human existence.”

Species the public is familiar with, like kiwi and kōkako, live on land protected under QEII covenants, as well as rare species of plants, Coup said.

Native birds like the kōkako often live on land protected by QEII covenants Photo: Supplied / Warren Butcher

The covenant helps keep these habitats safe from development.

“That’s what QEII covenants [applicants] come looking to talk to us about. They want their place that they consider to be special and important to be protected forever.”

The trust helps the landowner with costs of keeping the land safe. Often this means providing funds for fencing land to keep stock out, or help with pest control. Rates relief is sometimes available.

Landowners believe placing their land under a QEII covenant provides “robust” protection, and this has been backed up by courts, Coup said. The trust is independent from the government, so making QEII land subject to the Fast Track Bill would be a “significant government overreach”.

What J Swap wants

J Swap environment manager Dudley Clemens’ submission on the Fast Track Approvals Bill states there is “no valid reason” why QEII covenant land is excluded from the bill when conservation land is up for development. He said a significant area of the country is “potentially locked up forever” from being able to be developed for commercial use due to the covenants.

Currently, 187,758 hectares is protected by a QEII covenant. This is less than 1 percent of New Zealand’s land mass.

Source: QEII Trust Annual Report 2023 • Areas are approximate as not all approved covenants have been formally surveyed. Photo RNZ / A Flourish data visualization

J Swap did not respond to RNZ requests for an interview about its submission or its donation to NZ First. But a court case between Kaimai Properties and the QEII Trust suggests why J Swap wants land protected with a covenant to be up for development.

Kaimai Properties is associated with J Swap - the companies share three of their four listed directors. The QEII Trust has blocked attempts by Kaimai Properties to extend an existing quarry onto land protected under a covenant. The matter has been in and out of courts since 2019 with the QEII Trust winning on every occasion. Its latest win is being appealed by J Swap and will be heard in August.

Clemens told the Environment Committee that “through a faulty process” access to land the company wanted to quarry was tied up in the area which fell under the QEII covenant.

“When that issue was tried to be resolved the QEII Trust simply didn’t want to know about it whatsoever, and would not consider any alternative arrangements which would meet all parties interests.”

National's David MacLeod chaired the environment select committee that is considering the Fast Track Bill. He received a donation from J Swap prior to the election. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

He said the company welcomed the Fast Track Bill, “which provides new and fresh ideas to disrupt these kinds of binds that we find ourselves in.” The company was not looking for “carte blanche’' access to land at the expense of the environment, he said, but wanted balance.

“Aggregates means crushed rock,” Clemens said. “They’re used as a construction material for the likes of this regionally significant infrastructure that has been outlined as being a deficit at this point. We can’t build any of that infrastructure without products quarried from the ground.”

QEII Trust’s Dan Coup said J Swap’s request for land protected by a QEII covenant to be added to the Fast Track Bill was “far-fetched” and a continuation of its attempts to access the land.

“It would be a pretty outrageous move to have ministers take decisions on behalf of an independent statutory body.”

Cash and conflicts of interest

A government watchdog has pointed out potential issues with the bill and its lack of guidance on how conflicts of interest should be managed. The Office of the Auditor General’s submission noted real or even perceived conflicts of interest create public concern about decision making.

Controller and Auditor-General John Ryan wrote that while expectations are included in the Cabinet Office Manual, there’s no legal requirement for them to be followed.

Auditor-General John Ryan Photo: Controller and Auditor General

“Given the significance of the decision-making powers in this Bill, I encourage the Committee to consider additional statutory requirements to strengthen the management of ministerial conflicts of interest.”

A spokesperson for NZ First said there were well established processes for ministers to manage perceived, potential or actual conflicts of interest.

Businesses, organisations, unions and individuals may support different parties via donations, he said, and this does not stop them from exercising their democratic right to make submissions at select committees.

“Are you implying that organisations that make select committee submissions shouldn’t or can’t donate to political parties?”

He noted that political donations are made year round. “Other parties receive many more donations than New Zealand First.”

In an earlier response to a donation made to David MacLeod by a shareholder of a sea bed mining company hoping to benefit from the fast track legislation, a National Party spokesperson supplied a statement saying there was no conflict of interest in MacLeod chairing the committee while having benefited from submitter donations.

“The committee is hearing submissions on the fast track legislation, not considering projects which might apply to be considered for the fast track process,” the statement said.

The Green Party’s Scott Willis is a member of the Environment Committee. He said he was shocked by J Swap’s submission. In his view, land protected by a QEII covenant was considered sacrosanct.

He’s concerned at the lack of provisions in the bill to ensure public confidence in decision making isn’t eroded.

“There is a huge risk of corruption as a result of the way this bill is designed. We can see the pathways in which decisions could be reached. Clearly, three ministers having a say and approving projects is unacceptable.”

Russel Norman Photo: Greenpeace

Greenpeace’s Aotearoa executive director Russel Norman would like to see the Fast Track Bill rejected outright. He noted there were no anti-corruption provisions in it.

He thinks ministers with connections to companies applying for fast-tracking, such as being a recipient of a donation, should be removed from decision making.

“We now have an open door to corruption through this Fast Track Bill.”

He questioned the intent behind the J Swap donation to NZ First.

“It is an incredible situation where a private company donates a large amount of money to a political party after an election,” he said. “Hence, the question has to be asked: what was the purpose of the donation?”