Does it really matter if the emissions trading bill dies?

Early this month some bigwigs in the climate change world were here for World Environment Day functions and they oozed praise for this country’s leadership. If they were to come back next year would they still be so airily congratulatory?

New Zealand is indeed a leader judged by prime ministerial rhetoric. But rhetoric is not action. And Parliament is deeply divided over action.

One of three things will happen to the emissions trading bill. It may pass in some amended form that wins votes from enough small parties. It may be sent back to the select committee for more work if National can get the numbers. Or it may die.

One consequence of the bill dying would be to the government. The bill is core third-term branding. To lose the bill would be to lose much of what authority it still has.

Another consequence would be to country reputation. If outsiders looked behind the bill’s death to New Zealand’s actual slow-follower record, that might count against exports and tourism. If international negotiators did likewise, that might make it harder to win concessions in the talks for a post-2012 world greenhouse gas agreement.

A reputation is hard won and, once lost, doubly hard to regain.

A third consequence would be to what’s left of the forests planted before 1990. If the bill dies, so would its retrospective inclusion of forestry from 1 January this year. Constitutionally, that would be no bad thing — retrospective law is bad law. But in environmental terms it could compound the serious damage done as foresters raced last year to beat the 1 January deadline.

This point is not lost on National, so it doesn’t actually want the bill to die. It does want to see the government beaten because that might be worth extra seats at the election. But it would prefer that defeat to come without the bill dying — that is, by getting it sent back to the select committee for study and amendment.

National doesn’t yet have the numbers for that. And any such motion precedes a final yea or nay vote on the bill itself. Once dead, a bill is dead.

Of course, that is academic if Helen Clark’s emissaries to the small parties can assemble 61 votes. The three candidates right now are New Zealand First (likely but not certain), the Greens (just conceivably possible, if faint nods and winks are a guide, but if too little is conceded the Greens will vote against) and the Maori party (not yet fully informed and so potentially persuadable). Any two of those would make a majority.

This is great parliamentary theatre but is it critical?

Even if the bill passes, National promises to amend it mightily — even though some of its objections (for example, about cement) seem to have been at least partly addressed by the greater flexibility injected into the bill by the select committee — if it leads the government after November. Since that is likely, the law’s eventual shape is therefore likely eventually to be defined by National.

But that shaping — turning its concerns into specific law — would take quite some time. And how much National would get of what it proposed would depend on how close it got to a majority and the moral authority that would go with mandate and in turn what other parties it has to take with it.

Moreover, Bill English and Nick Smith would have to deal with vested interests which have influenced its minority report but which might want more concessions and claim a moral right to those concessions on the strength of their helpfulness to National on the present bill.

Meantime, investors would be left uncertain about their operating environment.

But even if the bill passes and Labour were to squeeze back into office, the bill as it stands leaves a great deal to be defined by cabinet fiat in regulations. And in any case legislation this big will require tuning every two years or so in the light of experience and as international, including trans-Tasman, circumstances change.

So there is much room for uncertainty whatever happens to the bill.

What lies behind these power plays?

Climate change action does not come free; if it was free, it would have no effect. But few New Zealanders want to pay. And business, which has to answer to foreign owners or local shareholders or, for small-to-medium business and farmers, the bank, understandably don’t want to pay either. (Businesses like Air New Zealand and Fonterra, which depend on country and product reputation with foreign buyers, take a different view.)

Unwillingness to pay is not a New Zealand-only phenomenon. Aside from tokenistic feel-good voluntarism by rich northern hemisphere middle class people, there is little appetite for real lifestyle-changing action.

Thus foreign governments’ rhetoric, too, should not be mistaken for action. Even the action they do take is often not quite what it seems. Moreover, any post-2012 world agreement is likely to be suboptimal and widely cheated on — as the Kyoto protocol has been.

In that game Parliament’s gaming fits a treat.