In the run up to last year’s election I devoted a lot of coverage to the ACT party’s descent into climate denial, and in particular to the outrageous statements of its leader Rodney Hide. It wasn’t clear to me at the time why Hide was ditching the party’s carefully constructed “Smart Green” positioning on environmental policy and spouting standard climate crank nonsense, but intriguing hints are now emerging thanks to excellent detective work at Canadian blog Deep Climate. Hide’s repositioning coincided with a major donation to ACT by Alan Gibbs, a wealthy NZ businessman best known here for his Aquada (a sportscar that thinks it’s a boat) and for his generous patronage of modern art. Gibbs, however, also plays a prominent role in climate crank organisations. He is on the “policy advisory board” of the International Climate Science Coalition (with such luminaries as Monckton, Bryan Leyland and Owen McShane), while his daughter Emma is listed as a director of the ICSC. In its election spending return to the Electoral Commission, ACT reveals that on April 9th 2008 Gibbs paid $100,000 into the party’s coffers. Within weeks, the party’s new climate denial line was being pushed to the press.
Interviewed by Gordon Campbell for Scoop back in May 2008, Hide — while adopting an overtly sceptical, do-as-little-as-possible stance — was prepared to at least acknowledge the IPCC reports as a starting point for discussion. Within months, however, he was ready to declare in a speech to ACT’s southern region conference:
I remain sceptical that greenhouse gases are the cause of a global warming.
My dissection of that speech included the suspicion that it might have been scripted by one of the cranks at the NZ Climate “Science” Coalition, and it turns out that I may have been on the right lines. The links between ACT and the members of the NZ CSC and its international partners run deep. Gibbs is not listed as a member of the NZ CSC, or on any of their policy “panels”, but he is a former chairman of the trustees of NZ CSC member Owen McShane’s Centre for Resource Management Studies. Former ACT MP Muriel Newman promotes Heartland-standard climate denial at her NZ Centre for Political Research web site, and has been a cheerleader and sponsor of Heartland’s climate “conferences”. With friends like these, Hide was obviously getting his climate “science” right from the horse’s mouth.
According to ACT’s spending declaration, Gibbs paid a further $100,000 to the party on the eve of the election, bringing his personal election spend to $200,000. It was, it seems, money well spent. Hide’s win in the Epsom constituency was enough to bring five ACT MPs into parliament, despite the fact that it only polled 3.65% of the party vote — significantly fewer votes than NZ First, who were condemned to electoral purdah by Winston Peters’ failure to win Tauranga. The rest is history. New prime minister John Key and his advisors gave Hide what he (and presumably Gibbs) wanted – a “review” of the Emissions Trading Scheme as a part of a support deal. Certainty about climate policy in New Zealand was destroyed overnight, and big emitters, lobbyists and climate cranks were given a yet another chance to influence government decision making.
The real surprise here is not Gibbs funding of ACT, or Rodney Hide’s adoption of a position calculated to please his biggest financial supporter. That’s pretty much par for the course in NZ politics, with a sometimes dubious relationship between small parties desperate for funds and wealthy business people seeking influence in Parliament. No doubt, if a green-leaning millionaire were to offer to fund ACT’s next election campaign a policy “accommodation” could be reached. No, the question that really intrigues me is why Key caved in so readily to Hide’s demands for an ETS review. Did Key simply not think things through? Or was he happy to give Hide his head, secure in the knowledge that it would please a significant part of the National Party’s corporate and right wing support base — and give him plausible deniability in international circles? “Nothing to do with me, chaps. It’s all down to that awful Rodney.” In either event, Key’s willingness to cut a bad deal was the lever that made Gibbs’ spend so effective. Hide will be remembered as a bumptious buffoon with wealthy friends, but Key will go down in history as a prime minister who failed his first big test.