19th December 2005
Judges are sometimes appointed from academia, but it is rare for a university to achieve the reverse and recruit staff from the Bench. Peter Skelton, a former Judge of the Environment Court, reflects on six years in the tertiary education system.
When I joined Lincoln University in 2000, several of my friends suggested that once I had completed the first year and had my lecture notes ready to regurgitate, life would become a breeze. Days of relaxed contemplation would be followed by long holidays. What a wonderful way to wind down to full retirement.
Well my friends were wrong, and to the extent that I too had that perception, so was I.
Certainly the Lincoln University campus is a wonderful place to work. It has a peace and tranquillity that encourages the notion of a safe haven in the ultimate ivory tower - even if it is only a small room overflowing with books and papers. The grounds are well laid out and maintained, and the rural setting is calming. The refurbished Ivey Hall (that picture postcard image of the University) is a truly remarkable place with first class resources. The central garden and water feature adds to the feeling of optimism and great promise for the future.
I had been a Judge for almost 22 years when I decided to accept a position as Associate Professor of Resource Management Law. There were several reasons for making such an unusual move. I had gained an appreciation of the work being done at Lincoln by such people as the late Dr John Hayward, Director of the Centre for Resource Management from 1983 to 1993. I thought I could make a contribution based on my experience both as a law practitioner and a Judge. In addition, some of my early judicial pronouncements on planning and environmental management were beginning to come back to haunt me in submissions from earnest young counsel (senior counsel were rather more circumspect) and so it seemed a good time for a change.
At the end of my first month at Lincoln I gave the traditional inaugural address to those who cared to come and listen. I reflected then on my time as a Judge and my aspirations for my time in academia. I talked of plans to further my interest in the Resource Management Act as an interventionist statute, and in law reform generally, while pursing my ideas about access to justice in environmental law, and writing about some of the more abstract issues that arise in this field.
I have done some of those things but not all, and I know now that my expectations were based on a rather sketchy appreciation of what it means to be an academic in New Zealand today.
I have learned that university teachers work long hours, and at times the stress levels made my former occupation seem quite attractive. One of my principal tasks was to prepare, teach, test and finally examine a postgraduate course in Resource Management Law in 12 weeks with unchangeable deadlines all the way. There was never the luxury of calling an adjournment.
I have also learned that within academia there are internationally recognised experts whose worth in terms of New Zealand’s future is seriously underestimated. I am sure that within all our universities there is a sizeable resource of academic knowledge that is undervalued and under-utilised. New Zealand’s success and international standing will be determined, to a considerable degree I believe, by our ability to utilise our academic talents for the benefit of the country as a whole. This is already happening in some areas but I know that the current funding model, under which all universities operate, makes it very difficult for staff to devote sufficient time to research and writing.
The speciality that I have been a part of for so many years is dynamic, and it will remain so. It is exciting, rewarding, and at times frustrating too. In many ways the teaching of law to non-lawyers has made it easier to communicate legal concepts and ideas and I hope to keep making a contribution to good professional practice through an organisation recently formed for this purpose, the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand (EIANZ).
My six years in academia has reinforced my commitment to the idea of sound strategic planning. I have written and spoken regularly about the purpose and application of the Resource Management Act, often to balance the voices of its critics, and expect I will continue to do that. The movement away from strategic planning in the early 1990s, in the belief that the RMA did not provide for it, was an unfortunate mistake that only now is being rectified at a national level. It still remains to be dealt with in many instances at the local and regional levels.
While I arrived at Lincoln with much practical experience, I am certain that my position on resource management issues has become better informed by the many challenging discussions I have had with my colleagues over the past six years. New Zealand faces many difficult issues as we look to refine and apply methods for sustainable management. Some of our responses will be guided by international experience, but many will demand a synthesis of sound thinking within a complex framework provided not only by the law, but by science, management, culture and public policy.
This is the challenge for my colleagues. Their work confronts issues of the present and the interests of generations of people who are not yet born. I know they will continue to produce research which is recognised internationally. And I also know that there will be little time for gazing out the window in relaxed contemplation.
Peter Skelton, CNZM, LLB, MEIANZ, retired from his position as Associate Professor of Resource Management Law at Lincoln University in October 2005. He will remain associated with the University in an honorary capacity