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The case for environmental rights


It’s time for the constitution to protect New Zealanders’ rights to a health environment, argues Sir Geoffrey Palmer

New Zealanders care about the country’s environment, and about environmental challenges.

The country markets itself as clean and green, but it’s track record doesn’t always match the rhetoric. Waterways are increasingly polluted. Water supplies have been contaminated. Climate change remains a pressing concern. The Resource Management Act, which aimed to protect the environment while also providing for sustainable development, has been so regularly amended that it has lost much of its original purpose.

It’s time to strengthen New Zealand’s environmental protections. In A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, Dr Andrew Butler and I are proposing to add an environmental right to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.


We are also proposing to make the Bill of Rights Act superior law. This would mean that other laws have to comply with it. The Supreme Court could find that other laws are inconsistent with New Zealanders’ right to a healthy environment, and could declare those laws inconsistent with the Constitution. The law would remain in force only if, within a year, 75 percent of MPs voted for that to happen.

This approach would give the last word to Parliament, but only if there was broad support. It would prevent governments from pushing through measures that were harmful to New Zealanders’ environmental rights and did not have the required support.

The specific environmental rights we propose are:

105 Environmental rights

Everyone has the right—

(a) to an environment that is not harmful to his or her health or wellbeing; and

(b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that—

(i) reduce pollution and ecological degradation:

(ii) promote conservation:

(iii) pursue ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

You can read more about our proposals in chapter 8 of A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand. And you can read how the superior law provisions would work inchapter 6.