The Bluegreens get a Thatcherian rev-up

British Tory MP Gregory Barker brought two lessons for John Key on Saturday: a conservative party can promote world “leadership” in climate change; and it is the sort of long-term policy that demands big-party bipartisan backing.

Key has explicitly rejected the first and last month stepped away from the second.

Barker is young, urbane and seriously Tory, from posh accent to market reverence. He is shadow minister for climate change, at junior minister level. Nick Smith got him out to rev up National’s Bluegreens at their annual conference in Taupo. He supplied just the right hyperbole.

The Bluegreens were ready. They have grown in numbers and in reach. There were nearly as many at Taupo as the Green party gets at its conference. Three MPs in the 2002 Parliament were members. Now 18 are. There were people at Taupo who don’t normally frequent National gatherings.

Green is a coming blue thing.

But there is work to do. As one delegate said caustically, the conference documents were in a Taupo promotional plastic bag. Another, more caustically, noted that in front of each delegate there was a plastic bottle of water. He awarded the supplier “marks for trying”, as the bottle was made of plants and was recyclable into cups, but most would go to the landfill and putting water in any plastic bottles is not stunningly green. (He didn’t mention health issues.)

Barker had a thought about what Bluegreen might mean: “We conservatives are not merely friends of the earth. We are its guardians and trustees for generations to come. The core of Tory philosophy and the case for protecting the environment are the same. No generation has a freehold on this earth; all we have is a life tenancy.”

He was quoting arch-free-marketer Margaret Thatcher in 1989.

Vintage-1989 Thatcher had more to say to the Bluegreens through Barker: “The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out. Those countries which are industrialised must contribute more to help those which are not.” She was talking of climate change.

Key might usefully read up on Thatcher on one of his long plane trips.

Barker was relentless. He said the Tories want Britain to be “at the forefront” of the transition to the green economy, through exploiting wave and wind power, drawing on the country’s intellectual capital to develop and commercialise new technologies and mobilising financial markets to make London the “global green financial capital of the world”, funding green entrepreneurs.

He wants a reprise of the British change-embracing “self-confidence of the 1980s” to “use the free market” to push new technologies coming from the green sector, as California has done. He said energy efficiency at the home and business level, including micro-generation fed back into the electricity grid, “will be as much an indicator of economic performance in the twenty-first century as labour productivity was” in the last quarter of the twentieth.

Barker was among friends. Since Key became leader, National has kept in close touch with Barker’s party and National’s own conversion on climate change owes much to Tory thinking.

One conference session was dedicated to the “green economy”. Backbencher Nicky Wagner categorised green businesses as “greening”, “greener” and “greenest” and gave numerous examples. “We’re doing it. We need to be doing it. And the future is based on it.”

Associate Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson glowed with enthusiasm and numbers about the large economic return from the government’s spending on the conservation estate and iconic birds.

Jo Wills of the Sustainable Business Network declared “business as usual is dead”, citing Cadbury’s humiliation over palm oil on the internet social networks.

Wills challenged the Bluegreens to “recognise the relationship between a strong ecology and a strong economy”.

Smith had in fact done that in his opening speech. Twice he talked not just of “balancing” the economy and the environment but of “marrying” the two.

That is an important shift in language. Balance is zero-sum: more environment equals less economy. Marriage produces offspring owing something to both sides and expanding the whole.

Enter the country clean-green “brand”, much talked of on Saturday. It is a world-leading brand but some comments from the floor, coupled with a session in which the poor management of water was highlighted, suggest the brand is at risk.

The logic of a world-leading brand is world-leading action to sustain it. Barker’s Tories appear to have grasped the general idea for their country, at least in rhetoric.

And here? Nick Smith said he aims for the Ministry for the Environment to be “the lead thinker on how to marry together excellent environmental management with a strong and growing economy”.

Fine words. Pity about the ETS, as some delegates muttered, sotto voce, on Saturday. Bluegreens have work to do.