A greener, gentler National party in the making

Conversions happen in politics as they do in religion. So we will see on Friday that Don Brash has converted — not to the Exclusive Brethren but to climate change.

Last year Brash declared the science in doubt. Now he accepts that the preponderance of scientific evidence is that there is global warming and that something must be done.

His face will beam out from a National party discussion paper which, judging by environment spokesman Nick Smith’s recent comments and the fact that environmental activist Guy Salmon has been closely involved in developing it, is likely to say there is a serious risk of climate destabilisation.

That, Salmon argues, requires a national response. He has documented Scandinavian countries’ consensus-building techniques, which he outlined at National’s conference in July to the party’s Blue Greens ginger group, which is conferencing this weekend. These countries bring together peak interest groups, stakeholders and political parties to agree on long-term goals, define them and develop policies to achieve the goals and mechanisms to measure progress.

Smith wrote to Climate Change Minister David Parker in December urging multi-party talks. No reply. Smith repeated his offer to work with Parker at a half-day business seminar the Wellington Chamber of Commerce convened last month. Parker’s response, to a follow-up parliamentary question later that day, was that Smith was welcome to “get in behind” the government. In plain words, “no”.

Would Smith do better?

Brash likes to quote the 1980s broad consensus to move from a protected and regulated economy to a market-driven one. Climate change and related issues of energy sustainability and infrastructure pose a similarly large national challenge.

Moreover, business needs certainty after seven years of fluid mishmash from the Clark government.

But Smith’s often combative political style does not obviously bode well for cross-party agreement.

Moreover, the “stakeholders” range from Greenpeace to the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) and Federated Farmers. So even a stakeholder consensus seems unlikely without some wizardry.

Note also that the 1980s economic policy switch was driven by an elite and not by broad consensus, which did not really develop until this decade. If that is a guide, building consensus on climate change might come down to National staying in office long enough for its policy settings to become the norm and people “get in behind”. Certainty might be some time coming.

A second line well flagged by Smith in the past and so likely in his environmental paper on Friday is the use of market instruments such as tradable rights under cap-and-trade regimes — for greenhouse gas emissions (probably initially on a limited range, such as electricity), water allocation, pollution rights and solid waste disposal, recovery and recycling.

The Clark government’s water policy earlier this year was heavily weighted to administrative mechanisms.

As to pricing, don’t expect a carbon tax, but as trading regimes develop that would over time produce a price.

National opposed New Zealand’s sign-up to the 2008-12 first phase of the Kyoto protocol because the United States and Australia have stayed out.

But Smith and Salmon have shifted National MPs’ thinking towards what might follow 2012 and the need to be proactive and a good international citizen. That, for example, has regulatory implications for clearfelling of forests at home and imports from clearfelling abroad — and for car emissions.

Market mechanisms have other environmental uses. Private landowners and community trusts increasingly contribute to conservation and eco-restoration, for example.

Smith doesn’t share former ACT MP Gerry Eckhoff’s belief that if kiwis were farmed they would multiply. But his party’s past attacks on the Department of Conservation (DoC) and support for miners, electricity developers and South Island farmers in their battles with DoC point to a shift in emphasis from departmental management and control to incentivised and subsidised private initiatives.

So expect a commitment to cash for this and other environmental projects, including soil erosion, tree planting and water and air quality. And expect National to use its longstanding links with farmers and (most of) their leaders to get buy-in.

Federated Farmers’ campaigns highlight a major environmental difference between National and Labour likely to be spotlit in Friday’s document — the Resource Management Act (RMA).

Smith has for years flagged big changes to the RMA to speed up processing, reduce objectors’ scope to delay consents, give more weight to economic development and less to “amenity” and relieve local planners of jurisdiction over major projects that have national economic implications.

The Clark government has stuck to local decision-making. Its RMA amendments last year, while yet to be fully test-driven, also have yet to give business confidence.

The government has also left some areas up for grabs. Smith has highlighted inaction on oceans policy, for example. Marine reserves policy is frozen in the headlights. Infrastructure for new urban development is not properly funded (so a levy?). National is eyeing outdoor recreationists’ votes.

And the government has left the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) on the margins in the bureaucracy. Smith has talked of splitting MfE into a small policy ministry and an environmental protection authority. Expect some refinement of that on Friday.

And the politics? National’s aim is to reassure greenish, liberal National-leaning voters who thought it too developer-captured last year, and to give scope for cooperation with the Greens after the next election.

That is the political point of Brash’s conversion and the presentational challenge for Smith.