Things are gonna change (the morning after)

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 unlikely…

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?

[Title reference: audio, lyrics]

16 thoughts on “Things are gonna change (the morning after)”

  1. If you look at the votes, the vast majority of people voted for a centrist government, and indeed of the people who didn’t, more people voted left rather than right (Greens vs ACT).
    John Key would be best served in taking a leaf out of Helen Clark’s playbook and isolating the more extreme supporting party, while seeking consensus with other centrist parties. If John Key isolates ACT then they don’t have anywhere to go, similar to the way Helen Clark treated the Greens.
    Basically he doesn’t need to give them many concessions, because they are not in a position of real power.

  2. I also think the Greens would be better served if they concentrated on sensible enviromental policy rather than including it in a swag of otherwise left wing social and economic policy. They would garner a far larger share of the vote, and give themselves a real influence whatever the government.

  3. A scary reminder of the seriousness of ACT’s intentions .. page C3 of today’s DomPost features a half-page article by Bryan Leyland entitled ‘Sunspots spell end of climate myth’. It’s exactly as appalling and egregiously dishonest as you might expect. Its appearance immediately after the election cannot be a coincidence.

  4. Gareth,
    That would be an excellent public service. Unfortunately the DomPost don’t seem to have included the story on their website – I’m still trying to track it down. Would a paper copy be any use to you?

  5. It’s there under the business opinion section, uploaded at 10.38am.

    I question the opinion that it is linked to the election result. That’s a long reaching conspiracy theory. My gripe with it is that it will be republished in all the other Fairfax newspapers, including the provincial ones, which inevitably choose to not publish rebuttals. As a result, I’ll be having all the usual heated arguments with friends and family over Christmas.

  6. Well, password1, people can make up their own minds about the appearance of this story the day after ACT get into power. It looks like a concerted push to me.
    Letters to the editor would be a good option.

  7. password1

    I don’t know that it follows that the provincial Fairfax newspapers will be publishing Leyland’s article. I can only speak from observation of the Waikato Times but it is generally free of that sort of thing these days. I hope I’m not proved over-optimistic.

  8. In this morning’s DP business section there was another little effort at chipping away any initative to reduce GHGs. In this case it was that the case for insulation refits is unproven. The article included a little throw away about the contentious GW theory.

    The article was mainly about the health benefits of insulation being unproven, which is rubbish because work done in many countries, not just NZ, all strongly supports this conclusion.

    I see this article and the previous Leyland one a positioning by the business sector, with support by Fairfax, to justify to the public any back down on the ETS and possible withdrawl from Kyoto.


  9. James Weir’s peice on ‘energy sector shake up’, that was on the first page of yesterday’s Dom Post business section, which included a quip from Leyland (the ETS should be paused because there has been cooling for the last 2 years), was copied to the Southland Times and the Gisborne Herald, according to my media clippings service. The Gisborne Herald article was abbreviated and did not refer to the ETS or cooling, but still described Leyland as an independent energy consultant.

  10. Doug Clover, I saw that article about insulation in yesterday’s DomPost as well. It was very snide in dismissing Phillipa Howden-Chapman’s work in this area, and patronisingly referred to her as ‘Ms’ (she is actually a professor).
    By a happy coincidence,and according to my Royal Society news that just rolled in, Prof Howden-Chapman was just awarded a research medal at the Science Honours Dinner on Tuesday night for her work on the benefits of insulation.

    What is with the DomPost at the moment? Are they waging their equivalent of the Republican war on science?

    Similar questions to Gareth’s questions about the ghastly Leyland article arise. Did the DomPost solicit this article by Kesten Green? Why did it appear just after the election?

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