The toughest issue for the next term

Two senior cabinet figures talked international affairs last Wednesday, one all crisp intellect, one a conversational amble. No prize for guessing which was Tim Groser and which John Key.

Both made the optimists’ trade case, Groser with a wide span at a conference on China where some weighty foreign academics spoke. Some of those experts were treated to Key’s later perambulation at the Institute for International Affairs (NZIIA).

Peter Kennedy, the ex-diplomat who runs the NZIIA, was quintessentially diplomatic in referring to Key’s reliance on only one page of notes. That was a measure of how seriously Key took his audience.

Others at other conferences have remarked on such offhandedness, asides and, for agricultural types, a swear-word or two.

Key’s focus was trade, including tourism, as if “foreign affairs is trade”, as Sir Robert Muldoon infamously said. Asked about the wider relationship with China, he talked about moving up the value chain. Asked about tension in the South China sea, he began: “I just sort of hope…”. He forgot, till prompted, to mention Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit this week.

His only reference to climate change, a major international matter, was in the context of forums where he talks to big leaders on the sidelines. In his reference to the Pacific forum he talked up New Zealand’s renewable energy project there, then added that those small states “say to bigger countries that we (the small island states) don’t have a big footprint in climate change but we take it seriously and you (the big countries) should take it seriously too”.

Does big-in-the-Pacific New Zealand, with a rising footprint, broken emissions trading scheme and few complementary measures, take it seriously?

The Greens, Labour, probably Internet-Mana and forest-growing iwi say not. Even Winston Peters, who wants sectoral strategies to cut “fossil fuel carbon”, which excludes farmers’ methane and nitrous oxide, with costs shared across the economy, condemns the ETS in its current form. He identified the risk of doing too little as an international market reaction — what others call risk to the clean-green brand.

National’s difficulty with climate change policy is that it sees action as a cost and therefore a brake on its dominant project, to speed up GDP growth.

If anything, parts of the local private sector are now edging ahead of ministers. International examples: more than 100 multinationals now say they account for stocks and use of six capitals, including natural capital; some others now price pricing carbon into their accounts for internal purposes. Here Business New Zealand’s Sustainable Business Council section has begun to meet the public sector natural resources sector chief executives who have been conferring for several years and who at the last election presented a combined natural resources briefing to relevant incoming ministers.

Even the Treasury has begun to take a bit more notice and will part-fund next year’s natural resources conference the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) drives. And that sector’s thinking, including on climate change, is to feature in the pan-public service briefing to the whole government chief executives will assemble in early September. MfE is still not a “central agency” but it has more weight now.

There is movement in the cabinet. Last Thursday’s freshwater national objectives discussion paper, though scoffed at by Labour and Greens, is a significant step. Sources say that is because Bill English took the matter in hand.

There is also progress on waste management, a focus at National’s conference.

Environment Minister Amy Adams has often seemed more a minister for the economy than for the environment — witness her proposal to refocus the Resource Management Act to upweight economic factors. She and Key now blame Labour for blocking the RMA processing improvements also in the proposal, though Labour broadly backs them. Key also disingenuously said last week the bill reducing housing land development contributions didn’t have the numbers, even though Labour backs it.

Natural resources, particularly water but by definition butting on to climate change, will be a major focus if National gets a third term. It needs to be if English and Co are to maintain business confidence to invest as they go towards the 2017 election. Then, as now, a change of government would bring a major regulatory switch if something nearer a consensus isn’t developed before then.

And there is a GDP option. Early findings in research at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development are that environmental constraint rules can and often do prompt innovation which has wider benefits.

In other words, to see environmental action only as cost is myopic. Which no top politician can afford to be.

* An aside in the light of last week’s column: More turned out for David Cunliffe’s keynote on Sunday and cheered more loudly than for Key’s a week earlier. Hmmm.