A National complication in the climate change show

The National party’s interest in New Zealand First’s conference this weekend will be in the prospect for rubbing along in Parliament after 2008. But a much bigger support challenge looms for National elsewhere.

It has long been taken as read in senior National circles that if National needs the numbers after the next election and New Zealand First survives the election, Winston Peters will stay on as Foreign Minister.

It’s not exactly National’s eager preference. Senior Nationalists look forward to voters eventually retiring Peters, as they nearly did in 1999 and again in 2005. They are unimpressed with his conduct of the portfolio. (For now it helps that he is sandwiched by two accomplished operators, Helen Clark and Phil Goff.)

But even if Rodney Hide and Peter Dunne were to provide enough votes for a majority post-2008 there are strong arguments, if Peters is in the next Parliament, for having him inside the tent and not marauding on the margins in a huff.

And Clark’s 2005 innovations — ministers outside the government — have shown how to anaesthetise small parties. Brian Donnelly, for example, the most able New Zealand First MP, saw through the device at once. He is expected to confirm by Saturday he is to be High Commissioner in the Cook Islands.

Note also that Peters, now two years a minister alongside Clark, has already lasted far longer than in his two 1990s ministerial stints with National.

But dancing with Peters is a year away. Right at hand climate change poses National a challenging issue with its extra-parliamentary support groups.

Along with most interest groups, National gave David Parker’s greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme an in-principle tick on day one a month ago.

But now the interest groups have done the numbers, read the voluminous fine print and fished out the multitudinous fishhooks.

This week a coalition of peak organisations and big emitters challenged the government-commissioned assessment that the scheme would cause microscopic economic pain. But there is far more to it than that, as no doubt a peer review of the scheme commissioned by officials has indicated.

One among many examples is the “90 per cent” figure. Big emitters unable pass their costs on were, it seemed on day one, to get “free” allocations of emissions permits initially equal to 90 per cent of their 2003-05 figures. Actually, the fine print ties the 90 per cent to emissions over 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent — which, for an emitter of 500,000 tonnes amounts to 81 per cent and for one of 100,000 tonnes to 45 per cent.

A similar slippage applies to the farmers’ 90 per cent in 2013.

And that doesn’t take into account the increased costs of electricity and transport the regime imposes. Farms and the many small firms which export or compete with imports and cannot pass on their costs will be less competitive than their Australian and most other counterparts. Accordingly, the New Zealand Institute will tomorrow urge a “fast-follower”, not a leading-edge, approach.

Parker’s Leadership Forum of chief executives is supposed to sort all this out before the legislation is tabled, allegedly in December.

The forum’s first meeting was not much more than a shaking of hands and establishment of working groups. The chief executives — handpicked to limit contrariness — are not their organisations’ experts and in any case their experts were still doing the numbers.

The forum has two more meetings, which is hardly enough to make the legislation workable and saleable to the interest groups. To achieve that the forum ideally needs to continue meeting next year.

On a scheme with far-reaching implications for the health of the economy a real consensus would help everyone a lot. A bill passed 61-59 would encourage businesses to hold out for a change of government instead of getting on with hunting out money-making opportunities.

National doesn’t want unfinished business. If elected, it wants in its first year to accentuate policy positives, not get bogged down reworking the emissions scheme to deal with gripes and demands from its farm and business constituencies. That could turn into a political quicksand, as the ill-fated carbon tax did for Labour.

So National needs the scheme bedded in next year and beyond revisiting.

That means working through hard issues with its special constituencies, fronting them on some points on which opportunism would counsel cave-ins, facing down opportunists in its own ranks and imposing a discipline that was absent in a series of muffed announcements last month and taking a proactive role in the finalising of Parker’s bill in the select committee (which means constructively challenging Labour’s command-and-control mentality).

And it must do all that without adequate analytical resources and with limited capacity in its own ranks.

This is the Key-English National party’s first big test. It is a very big test. If it passes, managing Peters would be a doddle.