Balancing GDP, environment, values and processes

GDP growth is this government’s dominant priority. If polls of consumer confidence, notably Colmar Brunton’s for TV1, are a guide, rank and file voters have cottoned on.

Credit growth is the strongest for nearly four years: 3.8 per cent in the 12 months to January, 0.4 per cent in January alone. That’s the “spend” part of GDP growth.

The Mighty River Power selldown is partly aimed at the “save” part, to get small savers into the equity market, which is important to balanced GDP growth. The government put out a pamphlet on capital markets last week, the last in its “growth agenda”, again underlining the GDP growth priority.

Amy Adams added her bit last week with “RMA2”, the next big swag of amendments to the Resource Management Act. On Saturday she will unveil the cabinet’s freshwater reform proposals. Toss in major changes to local government. The tentacles of change are proliferating and lengthening.

Ministers are privately saying they are achieving substantial right-leaning economic reform bit by bit without, so far, scaring voters. National’s polling has edged down a bit but an incumbent government four years into office in any other rich country right now would die for its ratings. Ministers have got bolder.

The issue is whether their changes are durable. For policy change touching on natural resources that requires ministers to get the balance right: between environmental and economic requisites, between settled and emergent values and between traditional and modern processes.

Take the last first. Look at what the Department of Conservation (DoC) has been doing under chief executive Al Morrison, a former journalist. Morrison has scandalised traditional conservationists by consorting with the enemy in order to achieve conservation objectives under Bill English’s sinking fiscal lid.

Morrison laid out his thinking in a speech last August. “Conservation,” he said, “is about protecting the things that allow us to live in harmony with nature”. The evidence was that “we are living out of balance with the natural environment”.

DoC’s traditional work is to protect “bits of natural heritage so that future generations can see what New Zealand was like before we arrived” and for recreation and tourism.

But DoC is “also a key player in protecting the integrity of ecosystems that deliver the natural capital that we rely on to survive and thrive”. To do that, Morrison said, DoC has to “be prepared to partner with others, including business”.

So he got in as an adviser natural compost firm Living Earth founder Rob Fenwick (once a business partner with Murray McCully but don’t hold that against him). DoC has since done deals with Air New Zealand and Genesis Energy, among others. On Thursday Morrison is to announce a big deal with a very big corporate.

These are public-private partnerships, serving the objectives of both public policy and private profit, reducing the “airspace” between them (as Morrison puts it), hyphenating “green” with “growth”. Reducing that airspace is becoming a more common process. In prisons, for example, the limited number of private operators is a comparator for the public providers and widens the potential for innovation.

Adams’ water statement will test another process innovation. She says it has been “informed by” the Land and Water Forum (LaWF) of 58 interest groups from farmers to iwi to environmental groups which sweated blood over three years to build consensus. If Adams has departed significantly from that consensus, that will undermine a valuable process for settling highly contentious issues.

Next, the values balance: received wisdom is that under-35s are more environmentalist than Adams’ generation. This may need testing. Under-35s’ gadget enthusiasm suggests they are also materialist.

They may be recasting the measure of what counts in the third calculation: how the economy and the environment mesh.

Adams, annoyed, said “environmental groups” had got her RMA2 wrong. She said her changes will enhance protection for the environment.

That is not obvious in her discussion document, which radically changes planning and approval processes to get faster and cheaper consents and explicitly puts economic objectives alongside environmental objectives in place of a single environmental outcomes objective.

Her earlier bill requires councils to weigh economic benefits and costs. Courts will likely interpret those changes as an intention to increase the weight of GDP growth factors. That is the sober, blue-green Environmental Defence Society’s judgment.

Adams’ plan for national edicts might be an environmental plus but might also undermine pro-environment local status quos.

The question then is: will Adams’ broom sweep clean? No, say Labour and the Greens, who will likely reverse much of the change and also say they will enact the LaWF consensus. The issue then will be who turns out to be in step with evolving values.

We can’t answer that yet. Meanwhile, we ride the seesaw.