The longer game that will reach through the election

Is Bill English slipping behind the play? A 1990s cabinet colleague, Simon Upton, last Tuesday in effect said he is.

Upton was in Wellington to deliver the 2017 Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) review of our environmental performance.

Twenty years back English, a very-up-and-coming MP, used to say that for his generation the argument over the drastic economic deregulation in 1984-92 was irrelevant. A less regulated economy and smaller government was the way, the light and the truth.

But those certainties in turn are now being questioned, including by some next-generation, up-and-coming MPs.

Last week’s specific issue was charging private interests for use of a common resource, water, to make a private profit. English mate Nick Smith called that plain silly because it would destroy the dairy industry. Cows, one might say, are now sacred.

English parked the issue until after the election with the Land and Water Forum’s technical group which is to examine how water could be charged for if no one owns it. The Wellington City Council could tell him: it charges households which chose to go on a water meter what it calls a “consumption charge” of $2.32 a cubic metre. That is, it sells them the water.

English does have a complication: asserted iwi legacy rights to water. Iwi have yet to agree among themselves how to pitch that.

But public support is building for charging private interests for use of water and not just billing them for “reticulation costs”. Natural resources belong to all of us, even if not “owned” as defined in our English-derived law. Should people make a private profit out of a “free” common good?

Upton’s OECD review was blunt. “Resource rentals for water abstraction and pollution charges should be explored.” Translated from OECD diplomatic-speak, that means “should be imposed”.

There would also have to be changes in land use — shorthand for fewer cows.

London-based Vivid Economics said that, too, in a landmark report the same day, commissioned and ticked off by the cross-party GLOBE NZ group of 35 MPs including 11 National MPs. It explored three ways of getting (or not) to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of this century.

Both reports saw opportunities in premium sales to well-off, planet-conscious consumers wanting truly natural products to eat, wear and sit on or, as tourists, to marvel at and experience.

Farmers and the rest of us don’t need to be impoverished, as Smith implied in his comments on pricing water to the dairy sector.

Cows, too, could have a nicer time if not jammed in small part-paddocks.

Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett spoke at Vivid’s public launch. She did not exactly endorse the report but didn’t kick it into touch either.

Bennett has been more words than action in her 15 months in the climate job, as a quick scan of Upton’s and Vivid’s list of stuff to do, including energy efficiency, far more electric vehicles and building and processing heating, indicates.

But Bennett has inquiries under way, including on the flawed emissions trading scheme and adaptation (now left to councils, without resourcing). She has not discouraged former climate change ambassador Adrian Macey from forming a stakeholder group similar to the Land and Water Forum and has said she is open to building a cross-party consensus.

Most of that, too, runs safely past the election.

Contrast Ministry for the Environment (MfE) chief executive Vicky Robertson’s comment last Thursday to a day-long “symposium” on how to build future needs and aspirations into today’s decision-making.

Robertson talked of very long negative and positive lags between human actions and their environmental impact. So, start fixing things now.

Would that be too far ahead of public and business opinion and too risky in the election? Robertson reported finding much louder public interest than even two years ago. Business is more engaged, MfE is finding. Business New Zealand has done its own forward scenarios.

Here’s Robertson on water: “We have undervalued our access” by not pricing such “externalities”, as 1980s economics calls common resources’ contribution to private profits. Looming limits to growth meant that would not work in future. So MfE is leading (with the Treasury) an attempt to value natural capital.

Environmental issues are long-term. Others issues stirred up in this turbulent decade are, too: for example, “work”, “trade”, “health” and “education” (the Productivity Commissions’ final tertiary education report also landed last Tuesday).

Those issues pose a big post-election question: can 1990s-steeped English and post-1990s Bennett take us beyond 2000s arguments to productive ways of thinking for the 2020s?

And, if so, should we expect a pointer or two before the election?

* The Afghanistan rage is over whether, if civilians died, that was intended (a crime) or unintended (collateral damage) and whether the Defence Force dissembled, which it denied in detail yesterday.