A (maybe) sustainable idea for Waitangi week

Where can Labour go that National cannot? Up on to the “sustainability” uplands, Labour reckons, and stake out heritage and identity there. Just the ticket for Waitangi week, when we wonder who we are.

John Key last week served up a summer smorgasbord: red meat for the hardliners (confiscate the Maori seats), some “Kiwi way” mashed spuds, a spicy curry of government failure (Corrections) and a nouvelle cuisine mix-and-match raided from Labour’s larder (fix the underclass, whence Key can claim he came).

The last was the tastiest. The more Key inches into Labour territory without upsetting his core vote, the more peril for Labour.

So Labour needs territory Key cannot raid and then to entice, cajole and settle centrist voters there.

The strategists among the ministers pondered this over the summer and the cabinet has zeroed in on “sustainability”.

“Sustainability” was to have been alongside “economic transformation”, “family and security” and “national identity” last year when those three themes were adopted as the frame for setting priorities. But four was thought too many: “sustainability” became a subset of “economic transformation”.

Then in October at Labour’s conference Helen Clark pitched climate change as potentially part of our national identity.

It could, she and others thought, sit alongside being anti-nuclear, which most New Zealanders seem now to wear as a badge of identity (and which even the United States, needing friends, is at last overlooking in order to normalise relations — expect a White House visit this year).

Clark returned to the topic at APEC and the East Asia Summit. Next, look for a serve in her speech opening the parliamentary year next Tuesday.

“Sustainability” is a large envelope into which many notions can be crammed and from which many notions can be extracted. So, some ministers say, it can encompass last year’s three themes.

Sustainability can mean simply policies which ensure economic growth keeps going or, in energy, simply an assured supply of energy (which we have).

Widen the perspective and it can mean ensuring resources stay plentiful for future generations. Wider still, it anticipates in near-term policies the long-term threat most climate scientists insist is looming from global warming.

Go even wider and it envelops the ideal of a sustainable society, which entails spiritual, cultural, structural, political and economic factors and links to heritage and identity, two dimensions which are critical if a society is not to drift, as this one did in the turbulent 1980s and 1990s.

Clark’s toe in the water in October was at both ends of that pool.

She tied climate change response to economic growth: as foreign consumers, producers, retailers and governments toy with food and travel miles and product and service carbon labelling, we need our clean-green brand intact to keep our markets in the face of rich-country middle class fright.

That brand logic argues that high-profile international leadership to combat climate change, even if it costs jobs now, stands to save or even build jobs later. If we are laggards, we might save jobs now but pay heavily later.

The political logic is in two parts. First, Labour reckons public opinion shifted last year. Second, Key and National have particular core constituencies — farmers and business — which limit how forthright they can be on climate and the environment.

Extend that logic a bit: sustainability is a place Labour can go where National cannot. It might rally some who lean Labour’s way but could slip to National.

But Clark went further in October, to “identity”.

Take the anti-nuclear parallel. National, tugged by kith-and-kin conservatism and wistful memories of the ANZUS alliance, was still not fully credible to the anti-nuclear majority in 2005: Labour pulled that lever to get back in the election fight. The nuclear whiff put National at odds with who we are.

If Clark can parlay “sustainability” into a “who we are” slogan — tie it to our (imagined) outdoors, land-sea-sky heritage — that would more firmly close off that territory to Key. (Though there is irony in the anti-nuclear parallel: nuclear might be the most effective climate change answer.)

Of course, “sustainability” won’t do. It’s a mush word. Framing the message needs the Bob Harvey touch, 1972 vintage. But Clark already has runs on the “who we are” board and will add more this year when she commemorates the horrific Passchendaele battle in October 1917. (She might usefully also start planning a national art gallery.)

Sustainable-as-identity would even fit Waitangi week. Maori traditionalists claim a special relationship with land-sea-forests. Marry that to the outdoor myth and start moving the Treaty focus away from what divides us in grievance and culture towards what unites us.

But to muse so is to risk exchanging politics for fantasy. Clark is practical and cautious. Half-steps are her thing. Unless Kiwi Key’s smorgasbords get too tasty.