On the morning after I was more interested in the rugby than agonising over the entrails of Saturday night’s election result, but today it’s worth traversing what new Zealand’s new political landscape might bring for climate policy. For the wider picture, I recommend Russell Brown’s take at Hard News and Gordon Campbell’s at Scoop; they summarise the politics of the situation nicely.
The big question, of course, is to what extent Rodney Hide’s ACT contingent – guaranteed a coalition deal, with Hide in cabinet – can persuade prime minister designate John Key to modify National’s policy on the Emissions Trading Scheme (keeping it, but watering it down even further).
Hide wants it thrown out, and there are undoubtedly members of the National caucus who would be glad to see it go. On Morning Report this morning, Hide said he thought the ETS might be “a sticking point”, which seems to imply he doesn’t expect Key to completely cave in to ACT’s position. This will be a test of Key’s commitment, renewed last night on TV One’s Sunday programme, to lead a moderate government.
The way the Maori Party plays its hand in the deal-making process could be crucial. They voted against the ETS, primarily because of the forestry provisions and their perceived impact on land values (and therefore Treaty settlements), but their environmental policy overall is probably closer to the Green’s than National’s. They are being carefully projected by National as a counterbalance to ACT’s presence in government, but how that actually plays out is currently impossible to predict. Perhaps Key will give them one headline win that’s big enough to overcome the Maori electorate’s general preference for Labour – repeal the foreshore and seabed legislation, perhaps? They are unlikely to stand in the way of substantial changes to the current ETS legislation, but would (I hope) vote to keep some form of scheme in place.
Meanwhile, the usual suspects are throwing their hats into the ring. The Greenhouse Policy Coalition (predictably) expects to get its way with the ETS, and Federated Farmers are renewing their attempts(*) to get farming dropped from the scheme. On the other hand, Greenpeace are (predictably) concerned, and want National to commit to stiffer emissions targets. That seems unlikely, in the circumstances.
The Greens, despite increasing their presence in parliament, are likely to have little influence on the shaping of policy. That is a very great pity, because their appreciation of the size of the problem and the nature of policy responses required is by some margin the most mature in NZ politics. In an ideal world, Key could try to bring the Greens into the tent by giving them some concessions on environmental issues – perhaps by allowing them to continue to run the portfolios they held under Labour – but that would be anathema to many on the right of the National caucus, and could make Rodney throw his toys out of the pram. An entertaining thought, but unlikelyâ€¦
Enough of the entrails. The shape of the new government will become clear as the week passes. In the meantime, I would like to put one policy idea on the table for John Key to consider. I have said many times that I would be far happier if climate policy was a non-partisan issue. One of the biggest failings of the Labour-led governments of the last nine years was their inability to build a consensus for action on climate change. The new government has a one-off opportunity to start such a process. This would not be the Royal Commission on the science of climate so beloved of the cranks (and the Family Party), but more akin to the process used in France (Le Grenelle Environnement). Get general agreement on both the need for action, and the general direction to take. Given the several attempts to get rational policy enacted in the last decade this is a bit like re-inventing the wheel, but might give NZ the chance to build policy that can survive in the long term and achieve the results we need. If policy changes every three years as the political pendulum swings, we’ll never get the long term settings right – and if the world is heading towards big emissions cuts in coming decades (it must), long term settings are what we need.
Starting such a process could be a big political win for National. It allows them to deflect criticism from ACT, keep the ETS in place (until, and if, something better comes along), pander to the business community’s call for more consultation, keep the environmental lobby happy by giving them a voice, and provide the groundwork for public acceptance of what will be difficult policy implementation. Key gets to look like a statesman, and an all-party climate policy accord gives everyone the long term certainty they need.
If National decides instead to proceed with a piecemeal reinvention of the ETS, caving into lobby groups and the siren song of a rejuvenated Rodney Hide, we will face far harder – and much more expensive – choices when faster action is forced upon us by the international community. Our biggest vulnerability has always been to the impacts of climate change overseas, and what the rest of the world does to try to address those impacts.
(*) Interesting to note one line from the Fed’s release: “To get through the biggest challenges our country faces in well over half a century means doing what we do best. That is using water to grow grass and turning that grass into protein, which is then sold to the world to pay the bills here in New Zealand.” New Zealand is certainly a great place to grow things, but we’re good at growing a lot more than just grass. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Feds recognised that, instead of acting as a mouthpiece for the dairying industry?