Development: For National all else comes second

Development. That is what this government is about. Economic development, to be precise. It trumps competing policy claims.
From John Key through Bill English and Steven Joyce and on to David Carter and Phil Heatley, ministers pounded that message to National party delegates at the weekend. It was, Joyce said, about “progress”.

Joyce was aggressive: we need agricultural intensification, oil and mineral development, minority sales of assets (to fund irrigation) and foreign investment. Also, job-creating businesses must be able to create them more easily.

Welfare, skills (education), labour market, research and resource management policy are all geared to development. It is most of the point of English’s fiscal consolidation and “better public services”. The environment-economy “balance” Key says he seeks has decisively shifted in ministers’ minds, actions and policy towards economic development.

That is where National wants the 2014 election battle lines mapped. Labour and Greens will be painted, in Joyce’s words, as “waving it goodbye”.

Delegates were in favour. The great majority of voters would be in favour too. Where do the political risks lie?

The answer is: among some of National’s supporters. Key’s political management of that constituency has fallen short.

In February 2010 Key ran the Heatley line (then Gerry Brownlee’s line): find where the minerals are and get prospectors to dig them up. Oil and gas, too.

By April he had retreated to “think again”. His mistake was to include conservation land. That didn’t upset only greenies. It upset tweed-jacket Nationalists. Knowledge of political history would have helped: it was those sorts who swung the Manapouri issue decisively in 1970.

In May Key backed Hekia Parata’s tradeoff of class size rises for investment in teacher and principal quality. That didn’t upset only the teacher unions, a National pet hate. It upset National parents who run most school trusts. The tradeoff vanished.

Last week Key confronted local government grandees at their conference: they are to be reformed, fullstop. The conference responded by voting without dissent to oppose the replacement in a current bill of the Local Government Act’s “four wellbeings” purpose (social, economic, environmental and cultural) with a “core” of activities.

Carter told a party forum this Sunday a number of mayors had told him later they secretly opposed the resolution. Carter was Joyce-blunt: the reforms will go through.

The main reason Key gave was fiscal. The central government is tightening belts. So must councils.

Again, most would agree, including many councillors. But the reforms reverse the subsidiarity principle that decisions and action are best done where the people who are most affected are — that Nelson, Tauranga and Dunedin know best, not the Beehive. That reversal would be underlined if a Nick Smith idea, now being toyed with, is enacted: to rejig regional councils on the district health board model so they are half elected and half appointed by ministers.

That would be a slap to the councillors, many of whom object to Beehive accusations of local profligacy. First, they spend only around 4 per cent of GDP. Second, a lot of what they do is forced on them by the central government, notably keeping up infrastructure and the extensive consultation which ministers complain hold up development. Third, the cost of some ingredients of councils’ work, for example bitumen for roads which are a large part of what they do, has risen faster than general inflation. Fourth, in any case ministers’ numbers are wrong. And, fifth, very few councils have let debt get serious, as ministers have claimed.

Now note who runs councils: predominantly National-leaning types, more than greenies and Labourites. Maurice Williamson offended these people mightily in the late 1990s, to National’s cost.

Much of councils’ business affects development through the Resource Management Act. Expect ministers to act on the technical advisory group recommendation to replace the act’s “environmental outcomes” criterion with Key’s economic-environment “balance”.

Which takes us to water policy, on which the Land and Water Forum of 58 interest groups has been labouring since 2009 to get consensus. Its consensus report in May on flow limits and pollution won wide support across parties. Its next report, on allocation and transfer of rights, is not far off. Ministers, who want water legislation through next year, are getting edgy. Some (guess who) think the forum has gone too green.

Actually, the forum has plenty of un-green, National-leaning sorts in it. They have risked a lot for consensus. The line still is that the cabinet will respect a final consensus if they get there. But it is now a fine line. If ministers trump them they will be grumpy, with cause.

So what? They will probably vote National. But National’s 2014 margin is tight. Can it afford to disgruntle any? And if it does, what happens to “development”?