Brokering a durable climate change strategy

John Key, still new to politics, is keen to show voters he has the breadth, the depth and the management and unifying skills of a Prime Minister. His gravitas-seeking slow conference speech fits that strategy. But he has much to learn.

Example: last week he could have taken the high ground on the trans-Tasman therapeutic products agency, stated he was going to broker a compromise that met his party’s policy objectives and laid some cosmetics over the government’s proposal that looked just that.

Instead he stayed on the low ground in points-scoring politics, got tongue-tied in word-fights with the Herald — and dragged the Australian High Commissioner into domestic politics, a seriously un-prime-ministerial act.

Brokering solutions is a large part of modern government. It is usefully done by working with and alongside people and drawing from the wisdom of small crowds.

That is something Helen Clark’s lot might usefully have pondered as it flailed on climate change.

The Labour party has asserted green credentials since it shook off the smokestack union clamp in the 1980s. Clark was an active Conservation Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer devised the world-first “sustainability”-focused Resource Management Act and after 1999 Prime Minister Clark quickly took some green steps, for example, stopping logging of state-owned indigenous forests.

Yet eight years on the record on climate change is tepid.

Clark blamed lack of numbers in Parliament for the carbon tax’s demise in 2005. Actually, the tax failed because she had shot so many holes through it that it no longer amounted to a row of beans and anyway was not hypothecated for climate-friendly initiatives.

Clark also parked energy efficiency and conservation with a small, toothless office. Former Climate Change Minister Pete Hodgson thought the potential gains were small. Only pallid attempts were made to encourage changes in behaviour — with the logical outcome that individual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions ballooned, especially on the roads.

Given that history, Clark’s breathtaking rhetoric last October and in February about leading the world and being carbon-neutral has turned out near-indistinguishable from the gases she abhors.

Now, nearly two years on from the carbon tax collapse Climate Change Minister David Parker is about to take another step. Next week he is due to announce a framework for the GHG trading regime flagged in May.

As I understand it, this will consist of some firm principles, some preferred options and some unranked options — all to go out for “consultation”.

If the government were to stick to its usual form of consultation, the result would be about as productive as poking a beehive: a lot of noise and little honey.

Factions — business groups and major firms, farmers, foresters, environmental activists of many kinds and political parties — would sit in their silos firing rockets.

Then it would be hard to get the numbers in Parliament. And Clark spelt out on Agenda on July 28 what that does to ideas: “If [ideas] are not going to be able to be passed through Parliament you don’t look at them for terribly long.”

There is another way to get the numbers for an idea. National’s sudden conversion to climate change gives the clue. Build a constituency outside Parliament for something and politicians inside Parliament fall into line.

Building a constituency is not done by helicopter-consultation. It needs real engagement.

Scandinavian countries long ago worked out how to do this. On very big issues they create commissions of disparate interests to develop an agreed strategy.

This works, not by an outbreak of damascene conversions to cuddly consensus, but by each person or interest group becoming aware of others’ perspectives and needs, then acknowledging them, then factoring them into their own trade-off acceptance of an imperfect-for-all solution to which all can subscribe: “I don’t like xyz but I am going to get abc and I can see that so-and-so is going to get vwx but doesn’t like bcd.”

I have seen glimmers of that sort of engagement in two separate climate change roundtable series involving most protagonists over the past two months.

So Clark could take aside all the factions (including, if she was daring and imaginative, other parties’ MPs) and lock them up with ministers and officials until something workable and durable emerged.

That’s a reach too far. But there is a stirring. Advisory groups of outsiders have been set up, one at a high policy level and one at a technical level, to work with officials. And the “consultation” is to include two-day regional “cross-sectoral” workshops — or so I hear.

That might just work — if the government is serious about brokering a solution and not just testing the water. The country, as distinct from pointy-headed officials and fight-your-corner politicians, might get a climate change strategy.

Confluence of opinion is more prime ministerial than confrontation. As Key might learn.