National's need for environmental balance

To greenish liberals not of a Green or Labour stripe, National was too un-green in 2005. That cost National votes at the margin. It has to fix that for 2008.

National’s race issue was similar — too hardline for its liberals. As they did on the environment, most appear to have held their nose and voted National anyway — but some, the party post-election survey found, did not.

Those are votes National has to lock in next time to win.

This is not a big problem. Last election National’s primary task was to recover its core vote and reconsolidate — which it did. The 2005 support is unlikely to desert it next time. So it must concentrate on winning votes in the centre, off Labour.

For that it must demonstrate two things: that it can form a competent government; and that it is balanced, not redneck and ruthless, especiallly on environment and race.

That points to a thorough reworking of policy. Voters don’t read detailed policy. But if the detailed background work is done, MPs sound more authoritative and the policy is more likely to be durable once in government.�

So next month a discussion paper on the environment is due — in time for National’s Blue Greens’ conference on the first full weekend.

What does it need to say? And can National bring itself to say it?

First, National has to shed the development-at-any-cost image it got among liberals.

The party relentlessly sided with road builders, electricity generators, miners, housing developers and farmers (except over Transpower’s Waikato line) against Resource Management Act administrators. The party thereby contrived to give the impression that defending the environment and biodiversity was politically correct.

National did not have just Labour in its sights. Local councils, most of them run by conservatives, were excoriated as opponents of progress.

National also took farmers’ side against the Department of Conservation, called it the neighbour from hell and its negotiations over Crown leases a land grab and threatened it with root-and-branch restructuring.

So National’s first need is to project balance between environmental protection and economic development. That shouldn’t be too difficult: the actual policy was more finely tuned than the rhetoric and the difference with Labour was of degree rather than fundamental. So the acid test will be in the tone.

And that will test whether the volatile Nick Smith can project gravitas.

National also set itself against climate change. It championed farmers against the methane tax and businesses against the Kyoto protocol and opposed the carbon tax. Don Brash took the line that the science of climate change was unproven, which translates as “do nothing”.

Senior MPs now accept that there is a climate change issue. That doesn’t mean accepting apocalyptic scenarios. But when major insurance companies and the British Conservative party’s leader and many leading American Republicans say there is climate change, a party pitching for 45% of the vote cannot sequester itself with the denial lobby even if the science is still contested.

That means a large policy rewrite — larger than some 1990s MPs can easily accommodate.

Climate change intersects with energy issues. This country is energy-rich in wind, geothermal, water and tide, potentially biofuels — and coal. But the options for electricity generation and, in time, supplementation and replacement of oil are constrained if picky consumers in rich countries which take climate change seriously are to continue to believe the clean-green image.

To what extent can National back expensive renewables options which add to business’s costs and thus reduce international competitiveness?

That is on the supply side. There is also a demand-side issue. Can National promote demand-restraint? Can it push heavy regulation to force energy efficiency into buildings and curb car emissions? Will it contemplate a carbon or other environmental taxes? These are tough questions and a discussion paper next month which ducks them will not fill the “competent government” bill.

Moreover, all those questions and more — for example, what priority to put on biodiversity? — are wrapped into a process question.

The Ecologic Foundation’s Guy Salmon, a National candidate in 2002 who shunned Brash’s banner last time, was brought in by Bill English to work on the discussion paper. At National’s conference in July Salmon outlined the Nordic countries’ achievement of party and pressure-group consensus on environmental issues.

Dare the party suggest this in its discussion paper? And if so, will it start seeking consensus while Labour is in power? Don’t hold your breath.