Are we heading towards a greener government?

You would expect the head of the Department of Conservation (DoC) to be a bit greener than a National-led cabinet. But what about the next Labour-led government?

Al Morrison won the Green party’s endorsement for this sentence in a speech at Lincoln University on Thursday: “We (humans) are degrading ecosystems and destroying species to a point where the services that nature provides, that we rely on for our sustenance and that determine our prosperity, are being run down and out.”

He analogised this rundown to the country’s economic performance in running nearly four decades of balance of payments current account deficits: “Our economy is dangerously exposed, seriously out of balance and facing huge adjustments. The prospect of getting back into balance is a distant one.”

This audacious parallel doesn’t quite fit the thinking in the Beehive.

But Morrison is not a lefty sandal-wearer. He links the environment — and the conservation estate — with economic wellbeing. This is in two senses: that nice nature is one of the things we sell, to tourists and with our land-based products; and that there is money to be made out of this “natural capital”.

He appointed Rob Fenwick, founder of recycling firm Living Earth and of National’s Bluegreens, to head a commercial business unit to “seek out opportunities and work with the business leaders who are committed to achieving greater prosperity through an enhanced environment”.

A business group working with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise aims to launch an initiative on this in December. Separately, Nick Smith is soon to go to the cabinet for sign-off for his long-delayed clean-tech taskforce.

Morrison’s economic prosperity line is requiring a wrenching shift of mindset within DoC. But it fits with some other thinking in the bureaucracy that has yet to get traction on the ninth floor of the Beehive, where the talk is still of “balance”, meaning a bit more environment is a bit less economy.

The alternative thinking argues that the natural environment and the ecosystems that make it up are infrastructure, like roads, airports, water pipes and broadband.

Infrastructure enhances economic activity. It must be maintained and developed, which costs money, mainly in the form of taxes and rates. But that spending is generally seen as positive for the economy. Thinking of ecosystems as infrastructure introduces that perspective into maintaining the environment as integral to prosperity: no longer environment “or” the economy; instead, environment “and” the economy.

Infrastructure doesn’t materialise magically from market forces — at least, not in quantities, to a quality level and in timeliness needed for optimal economic performance.

So far, Smith apart, there is no evidence that sort of thinking is likely to catch on in the cabinet. Business won’t be made to change.

Add: not yet.

At some point there will be another Labour-led government. It will most likely be a Labour-Green one. That government is likely to be a lot more proactive and demanding on environmental issues.

Environment is one of the six policy “frameworks” to be workshopped and debated at the Labour party’s conference this weekend.

The framework will talk of transition to a low-pollution economy. It will argue that, if necessary, short-term economic gain should be traded off for long-term environmental benefit.

It will talk of intergenerational fairness and needing to live within the earth’s capacity to support humans. So, make it easier for people to live more environmentally friendly lives. The government should promote strong, enforceable standards and, because it occupies about a third of the economy, lead by example.

It will propose re-tightening aspects of environmental regulation the government has loosened and toughening the emissions trading scheme, with strategies on energy, transport and land use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Add in extra push from the Greens if they are a support party and you can expect a significantly greener regulatory environment at the next change of government.

That might be tempered if the Maori party is around and needed for support because, for iwi, along with custom, tradition and spirituality go commercial ambitions. It would be tempered more if Winston Peters were in the mix. And it might be delayed if there emerges a populist party built on anger like the United States Tea Party to help National hold office.

But for strategic planners in business and elsewhere the message is that greener policy settings are likely in due course.

Morrison has signposted a path for those strategists: to look for ways of working with environmentalists, including DoC, to make money and in the course of doing that, make New Zealanders more prosperous in a wider sense than simple GDP.

But to get there needs a mindshift. From the green and non-green sides of the argument, the environment is mostly seen as a problem. Morrison, unusually for a bureaucrat, sees an opportunity.