Council to take ‘back seat’ on GMO appeal; unlikely to call evidence

29 Jan 2020, 1:06 PM

The newly-elected Northland Regional Council has today, Wednesday 29 January, confirmed it will not officially change its predecessor’s position on the management of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in its Proposed Regional Plan for Northland.

However, the new council (collectively elected in October last year) has also confirmed it will now take a ‘back seat’ and won’t take an active role – including offering any evidence – in upcoming Environment Court appeal proceedings on the GMO issue.

Council Chief Executive Malcolm Nicolson says the Environment Court had confirmed that there will be confidential mandatory court-ordered mediation, however a date had yet to be set.

The mediation will be a crucial first step in an appeal process that will eventually decide whether provisions on the management of GMOs are included in the Proposed Regional Plan, which is effectively the rulebook for the way Northland’s water, air, soil and coast is managed.

Mr Nicolson says with that with mediation date likely to be in the next few months, staff had today, Wednesday 29 January 2020, contacted all the parties involved in the appeal as a courtesy to advise them of the council’s position to take a back seat during the appeal.

“It was considered appropriate to do this as both a professional and personal courtesy before outlining this to the wider public.”

Mr Nicolson says the new council had carefully considered its position on the appeal against its predecessor’s formal decision not to include GMO provisions in the Proposed Regional Plan. It had done this at an informal workshop 04 December 2019.

“The current council respects the process that was followed by the previous council in making its formal decision on the GMO issue on July 16 last year, and as a result it does not intend to change its position.

“However, the council is conscious that the inclusion (or not) of GMO provisions in the Proposed Regional Plan is an issue with a high level of public interest and that parties on both sides have strong views, and will therefore not actively participate in the upcoming Court process.”

That situation was reflected by the fact that the original collective council decision in July last year had been ‘finely balanced’.

If agreement can’t be reached during the upcoming mediation, the matter would then advance to a formal Environment Court hearing at a yet to-be-determined date, probably later this year.

Mr Nicolson says given the fact that council’s official position on GMOs had not changed, a new vote had not been required (or taken) by councillors.

This meant that the council was content to leave it to the other appeal parties (who represent both sides of the argument) to present the evidence and respective positions on GMOs to the court.

Mr Nicolson says the previous council’s formal decision in July last year was the culmination of a “long, considered process with councillors hearing and taking into account expert scientific evidence and feedback from more than 80 submissions over several years”.

The decision on rules to regulate GMOs was considered separately from the rest of the council’s Proposed Regional Plan, which was publicly notified by the regional council earlier last year.

However, Mr Nicolson says with its decision on GMOs formally confirmed in July last year – and the subsequent appeal then filed – the council’s role had now changed.

“Effectively council is now just another player in the issue rather than the referee; the latter role is now assumed by the Environment Court and council’s status is no greater or less than any of the other parties.”

Meanwhile, Mr Nicolson confirmed among the appeal parties contacted today was new regional councillor Marty Robinson, who had personally joined the appeal on the decision not to include GMO provisions in the Proposed Regional Plan before his election to council.

“Since his election, Cr Robinson has stood aside from any council discussion on the GMO issue due to his involvement with GE Free Northland, his involvement as a party to Environment Court appeal proceedings and the associated conflict of interest that arises with his role as a regional councillor.”