The government does have a philosophy – a “fast follower” philosophy. But as it goes to and fro on its climate change policies, it's allowing other parties to take the lead
Every time I see David Cunliffe making a dick of himself in the House, again, and Miss Clark dialling in from New York (three times this week), I remember why it’s important to keep the romance alive with this new government. But talk of a long honeymoon is mystifying; I’m not sure I had one, what with all the fumbling.
I seem to have written this before. It’s true what they say about the “first 100 days”. Here on Pundit in February, I reviewed the first 100 days. It was too early to assess the government’s green credentials, but I feared John Key had already squandered his leadership opportunity.
Since then the government has equivocated on issue after issue, from lightbulbs to biofuels.
It all started with the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) review. The ETS badly needed a review, but the select committee’s terms of reference seemed to envisage a broader remit: second-guessing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and tabling options that included doing nothing. Finally, in March – as scientists reaffirmed that everything except the politics is happening further and faster than we thought – Nick Smith started saying climate change response was a government priority. By July, he felt able to take the big bold step of publicly confirming our government’s endorsement of anthropogenic global warming and IPCC mitigation targets.
When the ETS Review Committee was established in December, Smith chose Peter Dunne as its chair, with a view to building broader consensus, because “this issue is bigger than any single party and the challenge will span over several governments”. Charles Chauvel – probably playing politics – called for cross party talks in March, which had long been the wish of the Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. But it was June 18 before Smith worked his way round to re-engaging the government in the process.
The National Party’s express pre-election wish to wait and see what Australia is doing about emissions trading didn’t work out; Australia turned out to be doing very little, slowly.
The Prime Minister said the ETS would be “on hold”. By the time he changed his mind, foresters and some government agencies were already in breach of emissions trading law (the 31 January 2009 emissions reporting requirement for pre-1990 forests). The Climate Change Response (Emissions Trading Forestry Sector) Amendment Bill was rushed through under urgency on 30 June, to retrospectively fix that, and save the government from further breaching the law, by failing to publish an allocation plan due on 1 July.
As for the Green Homes insulation fund, it was abolished immediately after the election, only for abolition to be followed by vague talk about still insulating state houses, or maybe quite a lot of houses (this was shortly after the PM had met Kevin Rudd, who did have an insulation policy). Finally, the scheme was reinstated, as a result of the Green Party-National Party joint working relationship.
Gerry Brownlee spoke warmly about the desirability of light bulb efficiency, and the importance of public information. A multi-media information campaign was duly initiated by the Electricity Commission. Who knows whether this had anything to do with Brownlee, or merely the Electricity Commission fulfilling its mandate and trying to convince its hatchet-wielding Minister that it does do useful stuff? It may be coincidental that Brownlee works alongside Jeanette Fitzsimons on energy efficiency and insulation. Or it may not.
Less happily, Fitzsimons’ efforts to collaborate with him on the Biodiesel Grants Scheme got a lukewarm reception. The scheme has a loophole that Fitzsimons’ Bill would fix; the government supported the Bill to select committee, saying it would give it an honest hearing. The Bill also fixes a problem that we all have, today, by ensuring only sustainable biofuel can be sold. The petrol pump I used last week proudly proclaimed its 3% ethanol blend. Odds are, this is corn-derived, something I do not want to support. However, I was in a hurry and (this may be an unfair and superficial judgement) it seemed unlikely the pump attendant would be able to assist with my enquiry.
There was a long government silence, after third-hand reports from Bonn on June 2 that the government would consult New Zealanders before setting a 2020 emissions reduction target. On 27 June, Smith announced a quick-fire public consultation round.
He posed two questions at those public meetings – what should the 2020 target be, and what price are New Zealanders prepared to pay to achieve it? He declined to supply any of the cost-benefit analyses necessary to facilitate an informed discussion, whilst exhorting everybody else in the room to be up-front about the likely costs. It was left to the Green Party to release a document uncannily like that I’d expected to see from Smith, which must have been done on a shoestring compared to the manpower he has in his Ministry.
After all that groping in the dark and banging into things, we are eventually finding our way. Perhaps I’m just unused to the collegial low-Key leadership style – and certainly, the other garment was wearing pretty thin. Perhaps it shows MMP and democracy working.
The Greens “Big Affordable Climate Change” proposals are deceptively simple. They include reducing the dairy stocking rate, forest planting on private land, and average fuel efficiency standards for light vehicle imports with between-dealer “trading of unders and overs”. They are almost all subject to one equally deceptively simple question: How are you going to implement that? But they show vision and leadership. They give us something concrete to discuss. They received no media coverage; we talked about Keisha Castle-Hughes.
It’s because I agree with Smith about the size and difficulty of the emissions reduction task, and the importance of being up front with New Zealanders, that I am so pissed at him for talking glibly and hypocritically about it. Loyal little DPF is spinning like a party machine (here and here); even the mild-mannered PM has seemed like a man on the defensive, characteristically managing to shoot only himself in the foot.
While I’m not anxious to join others who went running blithely into the macroeconomic minefield in their eagerness to trip Smith up, the limitations of the report on which he based his disingenuous assertion that -40% by 2020 would cost the country $15 billion per year, or $60 per person per week, are intuitively obvious to anyone who reads it. They were publicly confirmed on Friday at a scantily attended Wellington meeting by two economists with decades of experience in precisely this modelling exercise – one of whom wrote the report.
There is one vanishingly slim possibility that what we are seeing here is business acumen, not leadership failure – that we are witnessing Trader John at work. At Copenhagen, international emissions reduction targets will be set, to which countries’ free allocation of carbon credits will probably be tied. Domestic emissions reductions actually achieved can differ, in either direction.
We can fall short of the target, and plant trees or purchase offshore carbon credits. Or we can exceed it, and sell the surplus offshore. A government that negotiated a -15% target at Copenhagen, then came home and implemented wildly successful emissions reduction policies would find itself awash with cash because of the conservative target. They would not, of course, be lauding such a strategy beforehand.
However, that would require a level of forethought and political canniness not demonstrated so far – not to mention some actual emissions reduction policies.
Which brings me finally and briefly to Phil Goff, who – accused by Gordon Campbell of being a political chameleon, and pressed to reveal his true colours – said he is interested in “what works”, regardless of whether that is “left” or “right”. It might be the “third way” in drag, but it sounded fresh, or capable of reinvention.
I hope Goff’s gains from his other recent media foray (New Zealand Listener 8-14 August, not online) are worth what he has lost; he will never again be able to accuse the Nats of dog-whistle politics with a straight face. Furry animals: tick. Baby animals: tick. A man in uniform – a working man – loves his dog, cusses just a little bit. Big red ticks, all over the ballot paper.
With my political spouse snoring and farting in the next bed, it’s hard not to think about how nice it would be, to be wooed by a man who knows what he is doing.