Making environment and the economy a unified ambition

Here’s a challenge for policymakers of the 2010s: to not just balance economic growth and environmental maintenance but make them a single, unified ambition.

Against that, Winston Peters is a transitory excitement. His distinction is to have been twice ejected from a ministry and once suspended. That is not the record of a selfless hero. That is the record of a self-regarding misfit.

Set aside Owen Glenn’s neurosurgically affected memory and the Serious Fraud Office’s interest in the 2005 money trail. The man who claimed uniquely to battle for the “forgotten people” against great and shadowy manipulative forces took big-business money.

He might yet see out this term as a minister if the SFO moves more quickly than SFO-watchers expect. But John Key has ruled him out as a minister and he now ranks after the Maori party on Labour’s preferences.

The real measure of a politician is policy. Peters will get credits in history for palliative care for the aged and the racing industry and some social and law and order items in 1996-98 and this term. But he never really engaged with strategic policy, as one should expect of a Treasurer, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

It is in strategic policy that the importance of this election lies. And among the biggest strategic issues is the 2010s is the marriage of the environment and the economy.

For decades, since the huge opposition to raising Lake Manapouri in 1970, environmental ambitions and economic ambitions have been counterpoint to each other. The implicit assumption has been that if you have more of one, you must have less of the other.

In that calculus National has favoured the economy, the Greens the environment and Labour has alternated, though with more attention to the first than the second.

The challenge, for a water- and carbon-constrained future, is to develop policy — and a business attitude — that says if you have more of one you have more of the other. The Conservation Department, for one, is cottoning on: it now emphasises the economic growth potential of its work.

National’s business funders expect policies to maximise economic growth opportunities. But National knows that younger voters, including some of its newer MPs, expect greater attention to the environment.

National also knows that red-green parties have dominated environmental politics in our sorts of countries. The market-oriented Progressive Greens bombed in the 1996 election.

Nevertheless, second-ranked list Progressive Green candidate Gary Taylor is now an accomplished environmental entrepreneur, organising a prestigious and meaty regular trans-Tasman conference.

Rob Fenwick, No 1 on that list, established Living Earth, a successful biosolids and garden waste recycling company, and co-founded National’s Bluegreen group in 1998.

In October 2006, in large part reflecting the work of Guy Salmon, another Progressive Green and environmental entrepreneur, the Bluegreens published a well-researched and well-argued “Bluegreens Vision”, which is the basis for National’s environment policy to be announced at the Bluegreens annual meeting on Saturday.

Environment spokesman Nick Smith insists the future of green politics lies on politics’ blue side — with policies that prefer market mechanisms and incentives to administrative, tax and regulatory mechanisms.

In fact, eminent Nationalists were prominent in the Save Manapouri movement. That reflected an important aspect of environmentalism, heritage. National once was the heritage party.

But if National is to prove green politics can truly be blue, it will need to design economic policy with a long-term environmental goal in mind and environment policy with a long-term economic goal in mind. If not, green will remain red.

The Bluegreens state the issue bluntly: “Economic growth and improving the environment can and must go hand in hand.”

Bill English gets partway there: New Zealand must “be on the economic offensive” and “position its economy and businesses to take advantage” of the opportunities in climate-friendly products and innovations. But he says only that a clean, green environment and growing the economy are “not mutually exclusive”, not that they can be mutually supporting.

And, while National has set a greenhouse gas reduction target of 50 per cent by 2050 and committed to an all-gases, all-sectors emissions trading scheme, the large changes it is pushing in the government’s bill attend primarily to business and farm cost issues and big emitters’ threats to stop investing or even disinvest. That risks foreign scepticism of a John Key government and, possibly, economic downsides.

Moreover, environmental goals take a distant back seat to GDP growth in economic policy.

On Smith’s and the Bluegreens’ track records, National’s environment policy will be comprehensive and well thought-through, attending also to economic imperatives. The challenge now is for English’s economic team to do the same in reverse.