Democracy in the face of disagreement: Environmentalist opposition to Escarpment Mine on the Denniston Plateau
Despite New Zealand’s Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) being lauded as offering democratic decision-making processes, those in opposition to consent applications often feel their input has minimal influence on the decisions made. This research explores how democracy is actualised or constrained through environmentalist opposition to decisions made about coal-mining on conservation land, including both informal and formal participation. Escarpment Mine is a proposal for an open cast coal mine on the Denniston Plateau on the West Coast of New Zealand. The mine was granted resource consents in 2011 by the two local councils. Environmental activists engaged with these decisions through the formal council led submission process, a requirement under the RMA, and informally through activism, protest and campaigning. Their opposition was founded on concerns about the mine’s effects on conservation and climate change. Drawing on theories of deliberative democracy and radical democracy, I create a framework for democracy that includes agonism and antagonism, situated within the overarching democratic principles of equality, justice and the rule of the people. Through interviewing environmentalists opposed to Escarpment Mine and the council officials involved, my research discusses the way environmentalists were constrained from participating meaningfully in the formal process due to perceived bias and the privileging of neoliberal discourses. I suggest that this case reflects a lack of agonism in most areas, and a delegitimising of antagonistic activism despite such activism working towards equality and justice. Thus, the case does not fulfil the democratic ideals of working with disagreement.