Putting the environment in the economy (or not)

The cabinet reconvenes tomorrow. There is a lot on its plate for now and for the year. You might add: for the decade. But this is election year and elections focus politicians’ minds.

There is an election date to fix but options are limited: holding it before the rugby world cup might suggest John Key lacks faith in the All Blacks and thereby is prefiguring failure. The logical date, Key has said and senior ministers say, is the once-traditional last Saturday in November.

There are iwi (and Maori party) aspirations to manage and to balance against others’ fears about access to beaches and, generally, about iwi influence and veto power. National might over time secretly hope the Maori party will oppose the foreshore bill so it can drop it.

There is an economy to manage. This is less of an election issue than usual: if the economy is going well and there are no domestic policy blunders, that will limit impulses to switch from National; if there is another international shock, it will be a strong reason in a first term to stick with a known quantity.

High on the economic list is promotion of individual saving. The working group was still working on its report last week and that will have limited the framing Key and Bill English were able to do over the summer. Budget tax changes will be part of that.

Nick Smith tabled some big, contentious ACC competition and privatisation issues just before Christmas, some for next term. Later this year the cabinet will decide how far to push part-selloffs of state-owned enterprises in a second term and whether, in pursuit of English’s desired fiscal good sense, to tackle lightning-rod factors such as interest-free student loans, a perverse Labour-originated boon to well-off families.

Smith is also relevant to the economy in his bigger portfolio, the environment. Most of his colleagues don’t yet fully get the relevance.

Smith has a stack of announcements for the Bluegreens conference on Saturday at Akaroa, postponed from October by the earthquake.

One is likely to be on a revised national environmental standard on air quality, using economic instruments to offset emissions in over-the-limit districts so that industry, which contributes 10 per cent of the problem, isn’t closed down, with job losses but with limited mitigating effect.

There are two draft environmental policy statements to be mulled over. One, delayed more than a decade, is on biodiversity — for which the Maori party has helped give Smith cabinet leverage, a contorted legacy of its own difficulties navigating iwi sensitivities during the 2009 emissions trading scheme (ETS) changes. The scheduled 2011 ETS review starts next month. Given glacial progress on a global post- Kyoto-protocol accord, it is likely to delay phase-downs of free emission allowances and agriculture’s entry.

The other, adjusted by the Land and Water Forum, is on water. The forum, comprising all water interest groups, still has two months of public consultations ahead on its consensus-seeking “Nordic process” report of last September.

The question for Smith is whether to push the forum to state preferred options for the crunch issues of allocation and transfer of water rights as he writes legislation for 2012 — a forum-agreed policy is likely to survive changes of government — or rely on economic research and policy advisers. Irrigation and water quality are this year’s focus.

Smith may announce at the Bluegreens a second Nordic process, on the super-vexed issue of intensive dairying in the Mackenzie Country.

He is unlikely to have much to say on the clean-tech taskforce he first mused on a year ago. He has yet to persuade the cabinet. The “100% plan” big-business chief executives clean-tech group has now largely tuned out.

This seeming slow biodegradation of the taskforce idea is highly relevant because of what a former senior National minister, Simon Upton, is doing at the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD): getting up a report on “green growth”, at South Korea’s instigation.

Smith joined a select group of ministers to discuss an early draft in Paris in December. Officials will discuss the draft next month. The report will be presented at the landmark 50th OECD ministerial meeting in May.

Who logically should go to that May meeting? English.

That is because ours is a natural-resource-based economy. Green and growth have a logic here: the environment in the economy and the economy in the environment, as some officials now frame it.

Most ministers think: the environment or the economy. Smith, though abundantly intelligent and energetic, is not one of the inner cabinet core, where economic growth is king.

Will the officials’ formulation therefore biodegrade? Officials can (and logically should) play a longer game than ministers. If, through the natural resources CEOs group, departments push the two-way “in” message to ministers, over time the mindset may change from “or” for “in”.

But first there is an election.