A snake swallows the elephant in the room and then flogs a dead horse – climate change politics in NZ Election 2011

by Mr February on November 16, 2011

Possible the longest ever title on a Hot Topic post: Simon Johnson continues our series on the NZ election by examining the entrails…

So whats happening with climate change in the election?

Elephant swallowed by the snake

I was originally thinking about writing a wonkish post comparing climate change policies between parties. You know the sort of thing. Which parties have policies that reflect the seriousness of the impacts the science predicts? Who has got the science wrong? Which politicians are all talk and no action? What are the minute details of the each party’s NZETS policies. Such as delays to sector entry dates, partial price obligations and varying free unit allocation regimes in the . MEGO, anyone? (My Eyes Glaze Over….)

Then I thought, Nah! I am looking through the wrong end of the telescope. You know what really strikes me about climate change in the election? It’s the absence. It is as if climate change is nearly completely absent from the campaign. When climate change does pop up, it’s portrayed in simplistic soundbites.

Nick Smith says anthropogenic climate change is real and complex and ‘wicked’. But promises more moderating, balancing and delaying of the NZETS. Labour says anthropogenic climate change is real and we will fiddle with some NZETS details for agriculture slightly earlier than National as farmers don’t vote for us anyway. The Greens say anthropogenic climate change is real and we have a detailed wonk-friendly exposition on our website, but for this election we are running with “jobs, kids, rivers”. Oh no… MEGO…

What’s happened is that climate change, the ‘elephant in the room’, has been swallowed up whole by the ‘snake in the room’ of politics. Along with all other serious political issues.

This snake is the real theme of the election. Russell Brown calls it the politics of absence. Brown says “cultivated political absence… shapes the almost unprecedented popularity of John Key”. John Key’s political success is because of this successful strategy of “de-politicising” himself. Key’s politics-free radio chat show was the perfect example.

The media have largely just played along with the politics of absence. The election is analysed as a poll-driven horse race. Or a rugby game “of two halves” with “kicking for touch”. Who looked confident? Who had the best sound bites? Who mispronounced his/her New Zild the least or most. Restructure or “reeshrukcha”?

The media have trivialised and objectified political debate. I give this example. The most discussed electoral contest in 2011 appears to be Auckland Central which the Herald calls “the battle of the babes” as the candidates, Jacinda Ardern and Nikki Kaye, are both relatively young women, whose Herald columns are called “Broadsides”. Do I need to say more?

After the snake has swallowed the elephant in the room, the snake becomes the dead horse that needs some more flogging.

Climate change has been politically institutionalised. It’s now a dead horse. Everyone has a policy (a horse). Everyone talks their policy. No one does anything. These policies all have a narrative that explains the problem (the horse is underperforming) and a ‘narrative’ solution (keep flogging the horse).

That’s why the horse metaphor fits so well. Firstly, the probability of the two main political parties really acting to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases is the same as the probability of the flogged horse springing back to life.

The second reason is that the best dead horses can be repeatedly flogged. Take the Resource Management Act. (RMA). It’s the ultimate flogged dead horse of NZ politics. In its 20 years of life, it has been in an almost eternal state of being vilified from both sides: for environmental failures and for economic inefficiency. Both National and Labour have both been subjecting it to interminable reviews and amendments. The basics remain the same. Plans are written with lofty goals. Plans don’t reflect consent practice. But then consent decisions rarely reflect plan goals. Consents are needed for some activities not others. Some consents need more evidence and take longer than others.

The NZETS is the new dead horse in the flogging stable. Its perfect. Like RMA issues, the NZETS is fiendishly complex. To most people, the NZETS has become a MEGO topic. A recital of any of the detail of the NZETS is usually enough to induce that response. Thus deflecting most criticisms.

Being complex, if not incomprehensible by design, the NZETS can be fitted, usually negatively, into any political viewpoint. Farmers can still oppose it with vitriol despite their generous treatment. It is just as good a political punching bag as the RMA.

National’s 2009 amendments institutionalise that most Kiwi of practices — a five yearly review by committee. To me this is the statutory recognition of the near-permanent state of “fixing” the RMA is subject to. Labour have said this will continue the 5-yearly reviews if they become Government. Thus they have bought into Nick Smith’s approach of eternal moderating of the NZETS. Labour get a payoff of needing few ETS-specific policies.

So debates on the NZ ETS, like this one between Nick Smith’s soundbites and Russell Norman’s price incentives on TV One’s Q and A, don’t really matter politically. The debate itself is just more MEGO. The snake swallows the elephant.

Interestingly, TV One had Jeanette Fitzsimons as their ‘pundit’ for the Smith/Norman debate. She cut right through the snake punditry by analysing the NZETS on the meta level. She said the NZETS was now so weak and distorted that it no longer mattered what tinkering Smith did to it. “It’s like driving a car fast towards a cliff and arguing whether to go in fourth gear or fifth”.

The horse is dead and no amount of flogging will make it trot again.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

bill November 16, 2011 at 11:36 am

As an Australian I have to say the title reminds me of a(n in)famous Queensland Premier, Johannes Bjelke Petersen, apocryphally credited with ‘Too Many Cooks Spoil the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs.’

The election is analysed as a poll-driven horse race. Or a rugby game “of two halves” with “kicking for touch”. Who looked confident? Who had the best sound bites?

Change it to ‘a game of four quarters’ and ‘kicking for goal’ and you’ve got the showbiz, soap-powder-selling inanity of a contemporary Australian election. ‘Home and Away’ set in Canberra with a slightly more plausible script…

As we march together down the American Road, where candidates are only expected to be well-groomed delivery systems for focus-grouped sound bites calculated-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives to elicit appropriately Pavlovian responses from the day’s specific audience. ‘Disclaimer: this is not a Policy’!…

Mr February November 16, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Joh Bjelke-Petersen! One of NZ’s less well known exports

I would not have thought it possible when I wrote the post a few days ago, but the NZ election is further descending into farce.

A highly-staged and scripted content-free political media event, the cup-of-tea between PM John Key and ACT Party candidate John banks has become the Tea-pot tapes debacle.

Thomas November 16, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Great post and yes, the election in NZ is now a complete fracas, with JK going to the Police over a tea cup, ACT looking just like the wicket bunch of Tea Party Nutters they actually are, Winston sucking as best as he can some of said tea through the thin straw on which he thinks his political future might hang and Labour and the Greens struggleing to get any meaningful message of anything important across through the storm in the tea cup…. meanwhile National, behind the teacupgate smokescreen carries on to prepare looting the countries assets and the control they might give especially for a greener power future.

Once our power companies are foreign owned we can kiss a politically directed investment in cleaner energy undertaken for the good of our future goodby too. Besides the financial dividends, the future dividends for a better and greener tomorrow are perhaps the biggest stake that is at risk…

If we want a better and greener future then NZ must stop National at the polls. Its not to late!

Macro November 16, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Excellent analysis of NZ’s current political situation, and the parlous cognisance of AGW in this country. It deserves a wide audience.

Bob Bingham November 17, 2011 at 7:02 am

One of the great things about MMP is that you get two votes and they don’t need to be for the same party. As a life long right winger I can vote for my National MP and give my party vote to the Greens in the hope that I can lift their share to 15% and give them a real influence.

Thomas November 17, 2011 at 7:25 am

Yep! Party vote Green is one of those things we all can and should do to send a clear signal!

Thomas November 17, 2011 at 8:43 am

There is an excellent article today by George Laking in the NZ Herald on ACT, Epsom and the matter of climate change denial in New Zealand:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=10766457

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