Trucking to nowhere on the hard choices in climate change

Why did so many people back Muldoon-era minister Tony Friedlander’s striking truck drivers even though it is better for them that truck companies pay a bigger share of the cost of roads? Because the truckers were giving the fingers to the government.

Large numbers of people are now doing the same or would like to. They automatically blame the government, regardless of whether the object of their grump is the government’s fault. How else could National get away with its gross exaggeration of the increase in education administrators and obtuseness over regulation of hairdressers?

The result is that where there is a call for strong leadership on hard choices, the government can no longer provide it.

In part, this predicament is of the government’s own making: its cautious, often placatory style; its concentration in its early years, when it had great authority, on rebalancing the economic and social priorities; its consequential focus more on past battles than future prospects and so its failure convincingly to depict a future New Zealand.

But that alone could not account for public approval of the truckers’ wrecking action. Much of the government’s predicament is not of its making: it is the sliding economy. Profligate with debt and besieged by crazy world fuel and food prices, householders want someone else to blame now the bill has to be paid.

The government’s loss of authority will be visited upon it at election time. But that will not remove the hard policy choices.

Take this comment in free-market economist Ross Garnaut’s report on Friday to the Australian government on the “diabolical policy challenge” of climate change: “The uncertainty surrounding the climate change issue is a reason for disciplined analysis and decision, not for delaying decisions”. Delay will add to the costs, he says. Garnaut urges a broad-based emissions trading scheme, starting in 2010 (though with a transitional phase).

Garnaut’s report is blunt: if climate change follows the trajectory the United Nations panel of scientists projects, Australia would become insufferably dryer and hotter, with, Garnaut says, “a severe and costly impact on agriculture, infrastructure, biodiversity and ecosystems” (80 per cent of its red wine crop will wither, other reports suggest) which would “significantly reduce economic growth and welfare”.

New Zealand, by contrast, will still have lots of rain and the modest warming could be turned to productive advantage.

The second reason Garnaut could challenge his government is that it might want to, and be able to, deliver.

Kevin Rudd went big on climate change in last year’s election. He promised action to cut emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 and billed that as his being a man of the future, by contrast with John Howard. While his ratings have slipped recently, he still has the authority of a new government.

By 2006 when Clark went big on climate change she had been under severe pressure on several fronts, not least the foreshore and seabed and resistance to social engineering, she had the year before only just beaten National under a misfit leader and in boom times for households and had junked her first climate change policy, a carbon tax, under attack from big business and farmers.

So this year she has struggled to get David Parker’s emissions trading scheme up. She doesn’t have the authority she would have had early in her time as Prime Minister to wind in smaller parties. To get there now requires horse-trading from a position of weakness.

Turn the spotlight. If John Key is Prime Minister next year, as is likely, he will have Ruddlike personal authority for a time. If he decided to, he could drive through hard choices on climate change.

He has said he accepts the science. That implies hard choices. He has proposed a 50 per cent cut in emissions by 2050, close to Rudd’s aim of 60 per cent for dirtier Australia. That implies hard choices, affecting his business and farmer backers.

Garnaut gives him some rope. For as long as global action on climate change is delayed, Garnaut proposes very carefully delimited tax subsidies for tightly defined trade-exposed industries, funded from revenue raised by requiring “all permits (to) be allocated on a competitive basis” (by contrast with New Zealand’s proposed free allocation up to 90 per cent for trade-exposed sectors).

But Garnaut does not see that as an excuse for inaction. He wants an early start, with wide sectoral inclusion. And he says Australia could/should go further than 60 per cent by 2050 if there is global action.

Just as here, the sceptics and the multitudinous “everyone but me” brigades have been on the attack for some time. Some states and unions don’t like Garnaut’s report. That is Rudd’s challenge as he fine-tunes his green paper and prepares to introduce emissions trading the year after next.

Rudd has the authority to press on if he chooses. Clark no longer has. Key is likely to have. But will he choose to use it?