Catching (or not) a generational current

The big thing that happened in the past week was the launch of the Land and Water Forum’s final report on how to manage water. The small thing that happened was another assault on David Shearer.

The assault on Shearer infused the Labour party conference, restating the old adage that the worst enemy of a Labour MP is another Labour MP. It was a factor in the 264-237 vote on Saturday to give 14 MPs the power to force a leadership vote in February (or today). A new rule means any such vote will henceforth be split 40-40-20 between MPs’ votes, general membership votes and union votes.

David Cunliffe’s positioning forced Shearer to demand Labour “speak with one voice” in a more upbeat and assertive keynote speech that warmed most delegates to him a bit. It blanked out a new and potentially appealing house policy, buried an otherwise positive and far larger conference and presented Labour as better fighting itself than National.

Shearer wasn’t helped by two upstagings: one by Labour’s grande dame, Helen Clark, in an interview and a portrait oozing authority and global grandeur in Saturday’s New Zealand Herald; the other on TV3’s The Nation, where John Key chose Labour’s conference weekend to do the half-hour interview it had asked for.

One who did not upstage Shearer was deputy leader Grant Robertson. His rousing speech matched his promise as a leader in the making (but still far from made): well-paced, energetic, many Labour “values” buttons pushed, lapped up by delegates. But it came thick with loyalty-to-Shearer messages. And he timed it for after the television cameras had gone for the day.

That speech from generation-X Robertson, coupled with generation-Y Jacinda Ardern’s star turn as MC, exemplified Labour’s able, rising younger set of MPs — underpinned in turn by a substantial and vocal generation X-Y-Zero contingent at the conference. Add some Obama-school campaigning techniques and prospects for 2014 might improve.

Next note what that younger contingent brings with it, not just in Labour but more broadly: a more sophisticated assessment of how natural resources and economic development fit.

This is where last week’s bigger news, the Land and Water Forum’s final report (completed in October), comes in.

There are two dimensions to this.

One is substantive. The final report deals with the crunch issue of allocating rights to use water and their transfer and trading.

The second report in May recommended limits be set for all waterbodies, done regionally through a “collaborative” mechanism similar to the way the forum itself has operated.

The third report sets five principles for allocating water use rights (community needs, a basic human right, variability in availability and use, commercial risk coupled with economic welfare and iwi rights). Takes would be adjustable instead of absolute, as now.

And a use right needs to be “easily transferable between users, to allow it to move to its highest-valued use”. So “barriers to transfer and trading” should be removed.

These are profound changes.

No consensus was reached on charging users resource rentals but the report hints broadly that the majority favoured charging. Farmers and electricity generators disagreed.

The second dimension is one of process.

The forum was unique. It was made up of all water interest groups from dairy farmers and electricity generators, through tourism operators and generators to environmentalists and recreational users, plus iwi.

If implemented, the forum’s consensus would stabilise a policy area of critical importance to the economy. Water is New Zealand’s pre-eminent natural resource advantage.

The “if” applies to the present government, which has been worrying that the forum gave too much away to its greenish members which would get in the way of ministers’ absolute priority to get GDP growth up. Some forum members were not on the initial ministerial launch invitation list.

That takes us back to Labour — and the Greens. Both have endorsed the consensus, though with reservations about parts of it and some concern it was confined to interest groups, leaving out the wider public.

Their endorsement was because they think the process valuable and potentially usable for future difficult policy issues. If current ministers cherry-pick the forum’s dozens of recommendations, that turn interest groups off putting in the time, effort and risk and kill the process as a way of fixing other tough issues.

But Labour and the Greens might also be tempted to look beyond the present consensus. Both think rentals are needed to properly value natural resources and ensure their maintenance for future economic and other use.

Farmers and generators would deplore that, probably noisily. But generational change is coming and the X-Y-Zero cohorts favour a different balance between exploitation and maintenance. You might say a current is running.

That is the big message from last week. Beside it, assaults on Shearer are just small drips.