An adept sermoniser on a pillar of good government

Who came down from the mountain last week carrying tablets of stone from which he read a fiscal sermon? Russel Norman. What’s going on here?

Norman’s sermon was to John Key and Bill English. It abominated election lollies of the income tax cut variety. Lollies, we know, are bad for our health. Income tax-cut lollies, Norman intoned, are bad for the nation’s fiscal health.

Labour’s David Parker agreed. So, in his way, did Winston Peters. Parker listed 10 tax, levy and fee rises by National since 2008, topped by the GST lift from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent.

Earlier Parker had said tax cuts would be irresponsible in the next term because economic forecasts are for GDP growth to drop — some forecasters say from around 4 per cent this year to about 1 to 1.5 per cent in 2017. (Actually a small cut just offsets fiscal drag as incomes cross tax thresholds.)

Both Norman and Parker imputed tax cuts’ rise up National’s agenda to fear of fallout from the Hager saga. There is something in that: though English did allude to the possibility of tax cuts at budget time, it was not in the budget itself and in the past two weeks it took a while before he and Whale Oil-slicked Key got their stories aligned.

The deeper point is the commitment of Labour, Greens and New Zealand First to at least match National’s fiscal surplus track, which English has embedded with skilful, firm and innovative management through a difficult six years.

That the Greens make such a point of fiscal righteousness illustrates how far Norman has winched his party in from the fringe. Accepting fiscal discipline, which is a pillar of good government, is an indicator of readiness to govern.

That transition is a marker of Norman’s co-leadership. He presents a combination of a clear ideology (like it or lump it), adaptation of environmental aspirations to realpolitik and to a need to build an economic case for them and an engaging counterpoint of twinkling smile and deep frown. As leaders go, he has done best so far in this campaign.

As delivered by Norman, the Greens’ sermons on eco-sins versus the good life are not 1970s-90s hair-shirt messages of apocalypse. A growing portion of voters feel comfortable with the party to the point where it has become a normal part of the political spectrum.

Greens are not a major party. Farmers and businesses think Greens a threat to their good life and Steven Joyce demonises them. But Norman’s image is not the image of a demon. Even some of Joyce’s rock-solid voters respect Norman, even if they dislike the policies. Metiria Turei has also widened her appeal.

And the eco-systems (not the eco-sins) message is in fact one built around a pillar of good government.

Joyce talks a lot about infrastructure, mainly roads, broadband and storage dams. But ecosystems are the ultimate infrastructure of human life, society and economic activity. So to invest in and maintain the physical and biological environment in good health is a critical pillar of good government.

Very rapid population growth is a threat to ecosystems’ health. So, as China has found, is very rapid GDP growth. So is climate change.

Next Tuesday the United Nations will issue a report on the economics of climate change. Helen Clark is on the board of the organising group. Dozens of economists and eight institutions, including the London School of Economics, have been involved.

It will not be a definitive statement of the costs and benefits of acting, over-acting and under-acting because economists don’t have the type of measurable evidence scientists have and because they disagree over interpreting the evidence they do have. The aim is to restart the stalled economic debate on climate change and get finance ministers, not just environment ministers, involved in the global talks that are aimed at a new agreement by December 2015 for action from 2020.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called a meeting heads of government on September 23. Key obviously won’t be there but he is in good company: nor will the bosses of China, India and Germany.

Key’s absence is in tune with his government’s scepticism about the 2015 ambition which lies behind its climate change tentativeness. Climate change minister Tim Groser leans towards more effective action and is a high-level go-between in the 2015 talks but is leg-roped by Joyce at home.

Still, there are clear indications that if National gets a third term it would pay more attention to getting natural resources policy on a more environmentally (and politically) sustainable basis.

If not, the longer-term political message was clear in a webcast debate organised by Generation Zero last week (a debate on substance, not a Television New Zealand circus). Labour and the Greens are for much more (too much?) action and New Zealand First has been moving closer to them. Beside this, minor tax cuts are small beer for the thirsty.

Meanwhile, Norman is increasingly adept and capable, sermonising or smiling.