Bill gets cross-party backing after multiple last-minute amendments
After 10 years of discussion under four separate governments, the National Conservation Bill finally passed into law Friday evening, with unanimous support from politicians on all sides.
In the end, it took some 35 amendments to the final draft, many of them brought by government, to satisfy the bill’s critics that it posed no threat to private land ownership or the power of Cabinet.
Even the bill’s most vocal opponents – North Side lawmaker Ezzard Miller and leader of the opposition McKeeva Bush – ended up supporting it in the final vote.
There were loud cheers from the government benches as the votes were recorded just after 6 p.m. and it became clear that the bill would pass 15-0, with Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell and Sports Minister Osbourne Bodden the only absentees.
Describing the bill as “one of the most important pieces of legislation this House has passed in many a year,” Premier Alden McLaughlin said he was delighted to have achieved a rare consensus.
He added, “My heart is full with gratitude and pride that we have got this bill passed into law with the unanimous support of all members present.”
The law will provide protection for endangered and endemic species and their habitats, establish a National Conservation Council, which must be consulted on planning matters, and give new powers of arrest to conservation officers.
It will also set up a process for government to use cash from the Environmental Protection Fund to buy land for conservation purposes.
Many of the concerns expressed, by residents in a series of public meetings and by legislators in the three-day debate preceding Friday’s vote, had centered on whether the bill could be used to force landowners to sell or to restrict their power to develop their own land.
After a painstaking committee-stage debate on Friday afternoon, legislators agreed to multiple changes to the final draft in an effort to appease those who saw conspiracy in the ambiguity of the wording of some clauses.
Amendments for clarity
Environment Minister Wayne Panton said government had been happy to bring the changes to clarify its intent.
The minister, who had begun the debate on Wednesday by suggesting it would be impossible to further amend the legislation without rendering it useless, said the substance remained intact.
“They (the amendments) don’t reflect significant policy changes – those are not the kind of amendments I was referring to in my introduction,” he said.
The bulk of the changes attempt to deal with semantics. The word “acquire” is altered to “purchase” in sections of the law that deal with the council’s remit to recommend buying private property for conservation purposes.
Whether this makes any material difference to the law or to concerns that it could be used in conjunction with the Land Acquisition Law to force people to sell is debatable. Government has always insisted that it has no intention of making compulsory land purchases and that the National Conservation Bill establishes no mechanism that would give it the right to do so.
The amendments also soften the language in some clauses relating to the decisions and recommendations of the council, changing the word “directives” to “guidance notes.”
Changes were also made to mandate that the council’s meetings be held in public and the minutes and agendas published.
The make-up of the council was revised to add an extra Cabinet appointee and ensure every district was represented. A clause that would have required anyone caught with a “specimen or natural resource” in a protected area – such as lobster or conch in a marine park – to prove they had not collected it in that area was dropped.
Miller, who had been one of the staunchest critics of the bill, said the amendments, which included several he had personally proposed, had made it more acceptable.
“I am proud to take ownership of the bill that was brought through.
“I am as happy and pleased as anyone that we now have a National Conservation Law. The people in my constituency stood up against things they believed should not be in the law but deep down we all want the same thing.”
In an earlier exchange, Minister Panton had suggested that the large number of amendments showed the government was willing to listen. Mr. Bush, who ended up voting for the bill, saw it differently. “You got beaten into submission,” he told the minister.
Several other lawmakers spoke in support of the government, praising the environment minister for a willingness to compromise to reach a consensus, rather than using the Progressive’s parliamentary majority to force the bill through.
“My heart is full with gratitude and pride that we have got this bill passed into law with the unanimous support of all members present.” PREMIER ALDEN MCLAUGHLIN