Jacinda Ardern has drawn on our national pride in New Zealand's nuclear-free stance to rally support for her decision to end offshore oil drilling. But her announcement has echoes of Douglas and Prebble as much as Lange and Palmer

When Jacinda Ardern was asked to justify her government's decision to stop issuing oil drilling permits forthwith she drew on a memory that sits deep in her party's - and our country's - soul. Our nuclear-free status. The decision for me, however, recalls another controversial move by that same fourth Labour government.

Labour's decision not to issue any new permits for offshore oil exploration is a generational decision and one that will have a profound legacy one way or another. Put simply, it's a biggie. 

For Ardern and her team, so long out of government, it is a chance to do the sort of thing they expect Labour government's to do. The moral thing. Policies that show vision and make the world a better place. What's more, it shows leadership in the Pacific.

As with our nuclear-free policy, the decision to leave the oil where it is gives New Zealand the moral high ground, a sense of mission and it gets us noticed. It's also similar in that it will also do next to nothing in the short term to change global behaviour or make the world safer. Our nuclear-free stance has been largely symbolic, as will this stance be, unless or until the rest of the world follows suit. But symbols have value. For a start, it sends a signal that we no longer want to be what John Key famously called "fast followers"; we want to lead. That will have repercussions for good and ill, just as our nuclear-free policy did. 

The fact of the matter it, as Ardern has said, "someone had to do it". And someone will have to keep doing a lot more if we want a shot at keeping the global temperature rise to anywhere near 1.5 degrees celsius. Trees and transport will be the key parts of our efforts until we find scientific solutions to methane emissions from livestock. The IPCC is due to release a report in October on how exactly the world can avoid that disastrous climate change, but a leaked report in February said it was increasingly a long-shot and drastic change will be needed. So in that sense Labour is simply anticipating the inevitable.

So it was a question not of 'if', buy 'how'. And crucially 'when'. 

In that regard, Labour's approach has been more like its predecessors' Rogernomics blitzkrieg.

While Sir Geoffrey Palmer still defends Labour's 1984 manifesto (that he wrote), most accept now that the economic policy was written in a purposefully murky style that allowed for rapid deregulation and the introduction of free-market policies without much scrutiny and without breaking specific promises. Labour's energy policy last year followed the same oily trail.

In 2014, Labour's then-Energy spokesman David Shearer broke ranks with his leader David Cunliffe and announced their policy on drilling live on television. He promised better safety regulations, more public consultation, more jobs for New Zealanders and even a sovereign wealth fund, but committed to more offshore drilling. The release infuriated the party, but it was clear.

Last year, Labour fudged. When it spoke about offshore drilling, the party promised tougher environmental standards:

"Over time, migrate existing petroleum exploration and production permits to any higher standards that have been brought in".

That implied continuation "over time". But the clues of something else were also there, bubbling up through cracks in the policy, with lines such as:

"...transitioning away from our reliance on fossil fuels to a high-tech, low carbon economy" ... "transition rapidly" ..." transition swiftly but smoothly" ... and "most known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground".

Like Rogernomics, last week's decision was announced with no real consultation and ruthless speed. There was no time for opponents to circle the tankers. Like Rogernomics, it moved Labour away from the safe centre and took it to the edge of mainstream politics. And like Rogernomics, they have shown no sign that they have planned for the consequences - forseeon or unforseen - of this policy.

Ardern herself recognised the comparison, although through a different lens. The Prime Minister said her announcement was intended to avoid exactly the harm done in the wake of Rogernomics, as regional economies stripped of subsidies and protected by tarrifs and the spending and employment policies of government departments saw all that disappear in a blink.

"I saw that once in the 1980s and I don't want to see it again," she said. "This won't change the landscape immediately, but it will eventually."

The industry sees it differently, and you can see where it got the impression. Perhaps Ardern is closing a door the industry didn't want to go through anyway; only two permits have been sought in each of the past two years. But oil companies and the many servicing companies might have expected to be consulted and listened to by a government that has promised a new transparency. This feels like either a deliberate blindsiding or a rush job. (Given it has working groups and committees for just about every other significant change under consideration, you can see why critics are suggesting the former).

Talk to members of the fourth Labour government today and few resile from the thrust of the economic reforms, but almost all wish they had done it differently. More slowly, with transition funding and re-training upfront. With more consultation. More commitment to not leaving some people on the scrapheap.

Sadly, there's no sign this government has heeded that lesson. Not yet anyway. The announcement came with the zeal of the nuclear-free dream, but without the legwork. There was no transition fund announced. No plan to find new purposes for the people and their skills. No three year grace period, for example, in which the country's fourth largest export-earning industry could start on what Greens co-leader James Shaw has promised will be a "gentle transition". Instead, the government's shown a risky complacency that the 22 permits already in place means it has time.  

The last of the permits is reportedly set to end in 2030. The fact is that if the world has not made massive strides towards renewable by then we are in deep climatic trouble.

If we in New Zealand are get to 100% renewables by 2035 and carbon neutrality by 2050, government and industry both need to make decisions and act. Fast. This is a clear indication to business to start acting. What National now calls "virtue signalling" would have been called " providing certainty" or "incentivising business" had the announcement come from its team.

The only point of doing this at pace, is to ensure New Zealand leads the way into the green economy and wins a competitive advantage. So we need to see the government's plan for how it gets from grime to green.

But by embarking on this in a sudden, even sneaky, way and without a considered and consulted transition plan, it's undermined the 'what' by buggering up the 'how'. Labour has failed to learn from its own history. Or, at least, the part of its history Ardern says inspired this bold move. The question now is whether the government moves rapidly and with proper thought to live up to its promise of that "gentle transition".


Comments (12)

by Kat on April 19, 2018

Tim, you better write a letter to the World Bank who announced last year that they're ending their financial support for oil and gas extraction, make sure they have a transition plan.

You draw a long bow that Jacinda Arderns decision to stop deep sea oil exploration can be compared to Rogernomics. I would argue that this coalition govt is "on the money" as future funding of renewable energy is where its at.

by James Green on April 19, 2018
James Green

I would have gone after thermal coal first if I was in her position, it is far more damaging to the environment and is less necessary than oil and gas to our future.

by barry on April 19, 2018

As the number of permits affected is vanishingly small, there is hardly any need for a transition fund to cover the loss.

It clearly had to happen.  The government cannot morally contract us for years to come to drill yet more oil.  If they issue a permit (costs nothing to the oil company) and then cancel it later it is a huge cost for no benefit to us.

Coal has to be the same. There may be a few dozen jobs affected with the Mt Te Kuha proposal, but the new great walk will almost cover that anyway. 

The last government will be seen in the future to be environmental criminals for continuing to open up mining/drilling past the time where there was any doubt about the consequences.

by MJ on April 20, 2018

Say what? 

"The only point of doing this at pace, is to ensure New Zealand leads the way into the green economy and wins a competitive advantage. "

We are very, very late to this competitive advantage party.

solar in Aussie:


and in NZ


Or the many wind and solar farms visible all over Europe and the 300 billion dollars China is putting into clean tech development by 2020. Not the kind of thing happening to great acclaim here, if at all. 

Where are our home grown Elon Musks? 



Global warming and climate change have been known for a long time. The Earth Summit was 1992. The UN conference on the Environment was 1972. This is at least 50 years old. In that time at the start of the twentieth century they had and recovered from the Great Depression and two world wars. Are we so much weaker?

The signalling the last government did was buy fraudulent credits and give companies incentives to pollute, rather than motivation to change the way energy is used.

This is not a movement that will have a television event with a simple narrative for the world like South Africa had with Nelson Mandela's funeral, where those that remain can look solemn and get seen as just.

This is not an issue that will have a long walk to freedom for one heroic person for us to focus on. Like the fault lines through that society this is much more complicated.  My worst fear is that we will be just move from one crisis and increased cost and issue to the next, or perhaps tearing ourselves apart between those bearing the brunt, unable to avoid it and those retreating to their self-sufficient life boats. That there won't be much time for taking stock at all. Is the power on in West Auckland for everyone yet?

Or perhaps it will just be a accumulation of small things. Bananas will start to be grown in more of the North Island. Water refugees may arrive. Many more trees will lose their roots as the prevailing winds change. Kauri will grow in back yards further south, micro organisms permitting. New Coromandel subdivisions will flood again and again, making great back pages for the papers or images to get shared. Test cricket will be played all year round in Northland, while playing rugby there will become more and more like playing on concrete as it is in Perth.  ACC costs will go through the roof.

The move is being sold as both crazy bold and scarcely bold at all. It's hard to know for punters like us.

Though John Key hated to look back to the Roger and Ruth years, he also didn't seem to be looking very far forward either. You also mentioned David Shearer, who once polled around the fabled 30 percent.

Well, we now have a Labour Party being told to panic that its polling has dropped to 43 percent (TVNZ : National regains lead!) and its young charismatic leader, with her Green party allies (on 6%) have made a call to do something. I think they've earned that right. We've waited long enough.

by MJ on April 20, 2018

Sorry- I think I got confused about the Musk battery. That comes from a wind farm I believe. But here is information about solar uptake in the state of beautiful one day, perfect the next:


One and a half million homes late to be a leader on green tech!

by Charlie on April 20, 2018

Stop gas exploration one day and jump on a kerosene burning jet the next to pop off to the UK for a junket.

Don't you just love the smell of hypocrisy?




by MJ on April 20, 2018

She's wearing many hats, Charlie, many hats. This one is her pragmatic type hat.

You remember the one where her government has entered into a trade deal including the 3rd largest economy in the world and has had the leaders of the 4th and 6th largest economies shower her with compliments, while endorsing us for a trade deal with their trading bloc. 

I can also smell a lot of hypocrisy, but it's nothing new.

by Charlie on April 21, 2018

If she really wanted to show some effective leadership on the oil issue she should have done something related to oil consumption rather than production. As it is her virtue signalling on oil has not affected our oil consumption by one drop, it's just helped destroy a local industry and forced us to import more in the future.

Things she could have done:

Initiated a policy of buying only electric or hybrid electic cars for herself and her ministers.

Slashed the size of her retinue/hangers-on going to London to visit queenie


by MJ on April 22, 2018

Token things? Maybe she walked to work. And told her staffs to car pool.

Unlike leadership on building denser cities less reliant on cars. As she has done.


by MJ on April 22, 2018

Token things? Maybe she walked to work. And told her staffs to car pool.

Unlike leadership on building denser cities less reliant on cars. As she has done.


by MJ on April 22, 2018

Token things? Maybe she walked to work. And told her staffs to car pool.

Unlike leadership on building denser cities less reliant on cars. As she has done.


by MJ on April 22, 2018

Sorry mods can you delete this and two duplicate posts?

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