New ways of thinking about water and the environment

Three strikes and you’re in. That was how Rodney Hide billed ACT’s three strikes prison policy. We now know the “in” referred to Parliament and the “you” was David Garrett. It worked a treat.

Hide recruited Garrett’s hard law and order line to build ACT’s vote. Two seats became five. But Garrett did not act out ACT’s open, transparent politician line and neither did Hide. Add Hide’s gallivanting last year and Heather Roy’s dumping last month and is that three strikes?

For ACT to save John Key from dependency on the Maori party post-2011, National’s Epsom voters will have to hold their noses more tightly. But if ACT’s party vote drops, will they think that worth their while?

Hide made much of Garrett’s achievements. But actually John Boscawen is in a far more important policy area, climate change. He has tramped the country campaigning against the emissions trading scheme (ETS), making a point of distinction for ACT. Small parties need points of distinction to avoid extinction. (Law and order is actually a shading from National.) The Greens, diametrically opposite ACT, have been effective at points of distinction.

Big parties have to “balance” competing interests. So on climate change and the environment, the cabinet has aimed to “balance” the environment and GDP growth. Actually, it tilts the balance more to GDP growth (Nick Smith dissenting) but has learnt from the mining fiasco that there is a limit to such a tilt.

On Wednesday another big environment/economy issue goes public, when the Land and Water Forum reports, two months late.

The forum is composed of 57 groups with an interest in water ranging from iwi and conservation lobbies to dairy farmers and Fonterra. Its brief: through a “small group” of 20, to talk its way to consensus on new foundations for water policy.

This is a new way of doing policy, potentially useful for knotty issues because it promises a more durable foundation for policy than the ideology and instincts of one major party plus small parties — which was Labour’s approach, with the Greens and New Zealand First, in legislating the ETS and then National’s, with the Maori party, in softening it. Seesaw policy is bad for business and democratic stability.

Labour couldn’t make the leap to the outside-consensus route. Smith cottoned on and got the cabinet to go along on water. Ministers had to agree to tell interest groups not to come to them while the forum was meeting. Iwi still had their Treaty of Waitangi pipeline to Key but they played ball inside the forum.

How far did the forum get? The word is that at one extreme ECO, the environmental lobbies’ umbrella group, has signed up and at the other Federated Farmers dairy vice-president Lachlan McKenzie went along, though his organisation has yet to formally endorse it. Forum members say the process worked and could now be used for other difficult policy.

The forum has been strong on limiting degradation of water quality, a critical factor for human consumption, recreation and some economic uses. On the core contentious issue of allocation, pricing and trading of water rights, the forum focused on limits to availability and use and has suggested a range of options, not a blueprint. It has tied this, with suggested changes, into a national policy statement officials developed in parallel.

Why did water warrant this experiment? Living in a wet country, New Zealanders have thought of water as “free”, with plenty for heritage, spiritual, recreational, tourism, personal sustenance, land based industries, manufacturing, commercial and electricity uses.

But not any more. In places it is over-allocated. And spreading more water to grow more cows mucks up waterways and risks damaging high-end tourism, coastal aquaculture and drinking-water — and the fresh-natural-safe country brand.

It’s not the economy v the environment; it’s the economy v the economy.

Thinking of it in this way has led some officials to propose treating water and the environment as infrastructure. Free markets are poor at ensuring infrastructure is invested in and maintained, as the 1990s skimping on roads, electricity generation and transmission brought to light in the 2000s.

The government doesn’t think of roads and broadband as something to “balance” against GDP growth. It sees those things — you might add education — as underpinning and enhancing GDP growth.

The same goes for the ecosystem services the physical environment provides, so the officials’ line goes. Water is a vital part of those ecosystem services. And, like other elements of infrastructure, the environment needs to be stewarded, maintained and kept in good working order if it is to enhance GDP growth.

Will the cabinet buy this? The word is the ninth floor is sticking with “balance”. That way it risks asking the wrong question, which is a sure way to get a wrong answer. Hide, now in a flood of bad news for having asked the wrong question of Garrett, knows how that can happen.