Fitting "sustainability" into Labour tradition

Michael Cullen is at last “sustainable” — eight years into the Finance Minister’s job, come next Monday. “Green” is now “progressive” in his value-system instead of wacky or unworldly.

That is, “green” can now mean “more” instead of “less”, which he thinks the Greens often imply. He says “sustainability” is the third stage of post-1984 economic development.

Here is how he put it to Federated Farmers in a speech two weeks back proclaiming farmers and the government “partners in sustainability”:

“The first wave of economic transformation (up to 1999) applied only a policy test of growth. The second wave (up to 2006) added a focus on fairness. The next wave of transformation will be about building an economy that is strong, fair and sustainable.”

For Cullen and his ministerial mates, “sustainable” is broader than the environment: it encompasses the economy and society.

In an interview Cullen said he has “hit the theme (of sustainability) over the past couple of years” in speeches and has sharpened the message lately as he has grown “more confident about being very explicit and upfront about it” and about the government’s potential to deliver on it, with policies now hardening: the 254-page emissions trading bill is due this week, two environmental standards on water quality soon and a policy statement on renewable energy in early 2008.

And when Cullen puts his mind to an argument, he injects a singular clarity and cogent logic. His three-step framework, tied back into globalisation and stripped of the moralistic dimension of much “sustainability” chatter, is the most coherent ministerial exposition so far.

He sets “sustainability” in Labour tradition: “At the heart of sustainability are implicit notions of a common weal and common good,” he said in the interview. It embodies “tragedy of the commons” issues “best faced at the societal level than at the individual level”. Classic social democratic stuff.

Cullen says social democrats have to meet those challenges of the commons if they are to counted “progressive and not just defensive of the gains of the twentieth century”. He says much social democratic positioning in the past 30 years has been a retreat before the resurgence of what he calls neoclassical economics.

Cullen uses the word “progressive” cautiously because in some quarters on the left it has specialised neo-marxist meanings. For Cullen “progressive” is “a movement forward, dealing with new issues in new ways and not just in ways which are reiterating old truths” (though he adds that old social democratic truths, tracing back to the eighteenth century, have enduring value).

Cullen says the history of Labour-type social democratic parties, their working class base having shrunk and frayed, has been to respond to changes in society in ways which aim to reduce disadvantage for all who are disadvantaged.

He fits climate change into that frame: left unaddressed, it will most hurt the most disadvantaged. (That is why he became an inflation fighter in the 1980s.)

That analysis is more in the “fairness” than the “growth” part of his framework but Cullen’s next sentence in his Federated Farmers speech was explicitly growth-focused: “I believe that pursuing sustainability is an enormous economic opportunity for New Zealand. We have a real chance to be an example to the rest of the world on how to deliver more jobs, higher wages, and higher profits all while protecting the environment.”

Moreover, he said (sighting a forward godwit or two and proclaiming spring): “Already our firms and our farmers are seizing this opportunity.”

He explained this line thus: “It is an attempt to say that dealing with these issues can be couched in a way that is consistent with economic transformation and growth, with a lighter environmental footprint.”

So here’s the line: “sustainability” is “progressive” and gives Labour a future-looking economic development policy.

Other ministers have talked up “opportunity” as they try to get businesses to look past the smokestack to ways to make money out of climate change. Helen Clark even burst out, in an unscripted answer to a question in May, with a charge to businesses to “seize the brand”.

But she and Cullen aren’t natural sloganeers. Think, for example, how they could profitably have trumpeted the “fair go” during the “fairness” stage in Cullen’s development framework. Kevin Rudd gets it: in his victory speech he showcased “the great Australian fair go”.

But wait. What happened in Cullen’s “fairness” period? After the striking 1990s productivity growth gains in the wake of economic deregulation (architect Sir Roger Douglas’s 70th birthday will be celebrated at Parliament tomorrow), productivity growth has stalled in the 2000s.

Will “sustainability” compound that retreat, as many in business fear? Or is there a positive productivity growth message in there somewhere? “Seize the brand” claims there is and Cullen has seized the brand and given it a Labour tag.