This is the month for hard decisions on climate change

The left demonises the 1984-90 Labour government for trashing Labour tradition by abolishing the guaranteed job. But it did spend much more on social services. And it socialised the motorcar.

Families who had not been able to own a car or kept a rustbucket on the road only with frontier ingenuity could buy a decent secondhand import, thanks to the abolition of quotas and cuts in tariffs.

You might have lost your job but T-shirts, videos and cars were cheap.

On the income side of the equation, the 1980s changes made a big transfer upwards to the quick and the smart, including educated left-liberals. On the spending side there was a big transfer downwards to those least able to afford the high prices (and often low quality) of local manufactures.

But those cars are now in the way of Helen Clark’s grand plan to be the first carbon-neutral country. Having made a big upward transfer to the middle classes through her student loan writeoff, can she also take away the cheap, fuel-inefficient car?

Her answer has been a series of indirect measures but not an actual attack.

This illustrates two problems with Clark’s grand plan.

First, the daring measures needed to be the first carbon-neutral country would be regressive: without generous compensation, they would hit the least-well-off disproportionately hard.

Second, policies to cut carbon emissions (tree planting alone will not make us carbon-neutral) cut across traditional Labour policy objectives.

Take the Resource Management Act (RMA). Labour values highly local input into and local control over resource consents and land and water use. It has also carefully built a good working relationship with local councils.

The result: the RMA works counter to the grand plan’s national priority for renewable electricity generation. Meridian is the latest to complain (again) — RMA delays have made the economics of the Makara windfarm marginal.

If Clark really means carbon neutrality she will need to bite the RMA bullet to fast-forward windfarms, geothermal projects and hydro projects — and water rights to go with them. She has taken note. But will she?

Cars and the RMA are just two items on a huge agenda that is back in play. Submissions on December’s five strategies and discussion papers on climate change, energy and land use closed last week. Now is the time, this month and leading up to the Budget, for words to end and action to start.

If Clark really means it.

She sounds as if she does. And ministers are promising big announcements, starting a couple of weeks from now, probably initially to do with emissions trading.

And Clark has some wind in the sails: a shift in the public and political moods last year, here and in other rich countries.

But how real is this mood shift? No one has yet had to put cash on the line or curb lifestyle. Will people really vote for costs and regulations?

And if they baulk, what will Clark do? Her history till now has been to recoil when the pips squeak (except on social-moral issues for which she has been, and is still, ready to risk her government). She has led where the people follow, if you get the drift.

So what does she need?

She needs demand from below, particularly from business and farmers. And the demand she needs is not so much for particular measures as for all sectors to be in.

Her carbon tax collapsed not from lack of numbers in the House but because her exemptions holed it below the waterline. The lesson, underlined by the Greens last week in their thoughtful tax-all-emitters on additional emissions policy, is clear.

The good news ministers think they have for Clark is that an all-sectors-in demand is developing. They point to big changes in lobby group rhetoric (even farmers) and leadership by big companies such as Meridian and Contact. The trick then is to work out necessarily differential transition paths and speeds, to keep Clark’s promise not to (unduly) dent international competitiveness.

If she equivocates, uncertainty could kill that all-sectors-in mood. That would strand her flagship re-election “come with me to the green uplands” vehicle.

It is in any case a risky vehicle. If the newly green public reverts to brown when the price is posted (for energy, for example), she could find herself too close to the sun and crash and burn.

But the alternative is business-as-usual. And that now includes prisons gone wrong, rogue health boards, people living with their pain because hospitals can’t fit them in, a school leaving exam which baffles parents, huge debt overhanging the economy and much else. Clark’s business-as-usual has in too many places become business-gone-awry.

But can’t Clark claim she can do the business more knowledgeably than John Key? Yes. But Key learns — quickly and well. His personal opinion poll ratings are closing on Clark’s. If Clark sticks to business-as-usual, Key can offer zippier, younger, fresher business.

Which takes us back to the grand plan and this month’s challenge.