Some countries make consensus — but we prefer to fight

Long-run governments embed policies. And the policies that in turn embed long-run governments are those that have wide political-party and public consensus.

Such consensus should not be confused with the default political-party consensus which develops when the lead opposition party thinks better of promising to adjust policies, as with the anti-nuclear stance, the Cullen fund and students’ interest-free loans.

The Clark-Cullen government has been in office long enough to have chalked up a number of these.

It has also initiated some policies for which there is now real consensus. The Supreme Court is one. Few hanker for the Privy Council now. Gay marriage is on the way to becoming another. A lot of the behind-scenes work in schools and the early childhood education push will quietly cross party lines and the work focus in welfare will be built on, not rebuilt. And so on. Not all politics is adversarial.

But there are some government policies for which there is no consensus and some for which there has been no attempt to make consensus.

Workplace law is in the first category. Wayne Mapp’s 90-day probation bill, which has a good chance of passing once he softens it, illustrates the standoff. In office National will reconstruct the Labour Relations Act — though there is enough agreement now on the parameters of the debate to ensure future policy swings are not of 1988-91 dimensions.

Crime policy is in the second category. Since 1987 Labour’s leadership has put its energy into neutralising crime as a rhetorical negative for Labour. It has not seriously attempted to capture and redirect nascent criminals nor has it seriously attempted the expensive business of nudging criminals into more constructive lives. (Simon Power is suggesting National will — but will John Key fund him?)

Nor has the Labour leadership attempted consensus around the complex set of challenges that encompass energy, transport and climate change.

Instead it has addressed them as disconnected policy items — electricity generation, for example, or energy efficiency — or it has plunged off on its own track, as in climate change.

The result has been muddle, backtracks, restarts and rethinks — an open invitation to Nick Smith, National’s jack-in-the-box spokesman on the environment, energy and climate change, to throw rocks.

Moreover, when I asked David Parker at his reannouncement three weeks back of the rethink of the climate change and energy strategies and energy efficiency policy if he would try to build multi-party support, including National, for the refashioned strategies, he demurred.

Think about that response. Energy and climate change (which has international political and commercial legs, whatever the lingering arguments about the science) are not sectional issues like labour relations, much as the now tragically comic Federated Farmers leadership portrays them as such. They affect every single person and every descendant of every single person. They are long-range issues.

It is difficult to imagine a policy area in which there is more to gain from national consensus. It is a critical part of our national branding, the clean-green image which gives our products and tourism a niche and higher prices — and that brand is at risk.

Contrast Parker’s brushoff with the approach of the Nordic countries, which the Prime Minister otherwise so much admires. According to Guy Salmon, whose Ecologic Foundation is studying them (for four government agencies, some local councils and some businesses), these countries have developed mechanisms to thrash out long-range multi-party agreements on environmental issues, including energy, climate change and resource management.

Typically all major stakeholders — from industry and agriculture across to recreational and environmental groups — are brought together, given huge amounts of information, with funds for extra research they may want, to devise policy. Policy implementation and progress towards targets are monitored by independent commissions. The result is a high level of pressure group understanding and agreement — and no lawyer-v-lawyer Environment Court.

Salmon’s exposition of this process to the Blue Greens at National’s conference on Saturday elicited many murmurs of approval, including from Smith. Don Brash was notably present.

But will National actually do policy differently from Labour? Not if the weekend conference is a guide.

It was about six hours shorter than usual and the public part was essentially a succession of front-bench speeches, with no questions or discussion on them.

Numerous sessions were closed to the media, including the lone 40-minute policy session. The Blue Greens’ session was closed, too, but Smith kindly asked me in. A confident National party would have valued the value journalists could have got from it.

A National leadership so scared of open debate is hardly setting itself up to be a facilitator of national consensus. So we go on.