The dangers of over-reaching

The dangers of over-reaching
Getting this tree-hugging country's populace along for the resources ride will require finesse.

Getting this tree-hugging country's populace along for the resources ride will require finesse.

The earnest submitter to Parliament’s finance and expenditure select committee was lamenting the failure of climate change action and advocating radical consumption cuts by humanity.

“What about tourism?” piped up the committee chairman, the National Party’s Rotorua MP, Todd McLay. “What would you say to all those tourists who fly here? You can’t come? What about all the people who depend on those tourists for their income?”

“Well,” came the mild-mannered answer. “Eventually I think tourism will be seen as the ultimate in evil.”

With the possible exception of the Greens’ Kennedy Graham, every MP at the table – Labour, National, New Zealand First – exchanged amused glances.

In the world they represent, banning tourism ain’t going to happen. They all now knew they were dealing with “a nutter”.

For Government MPs defending the indefensible weakening of the emissions trading scheme, he’d just made their job of smoothing the pillow of locally induced climate change action a tiny bit easier.

Next up, they faced a greater challenge. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, took the latest ETS reforms apart, saying they “make a farce” of New Zealand’s climate change commitments.

On the day, Dr Wright over-reached. She talked of “subsidies for big polluters” when referring to some of the country’s largest and highest value industries, angering Government MPs and looking exposed when unable to discuss the detail of other countries’ emissions trading schemes. But she couldn’t be dismissed. Likewise, nor can the renewed vigour apparent among the non-government organisations that advocate for the environment.

As Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce picks up the ‘more growth’ reins once held by Gerry Brownlee, the range of attacks on long-held victories for the environment is stirring up activism and new alliances.

Twice just lately, the Environmental Defence Society, Forest & Bird, and WWF-New Zealand have combined forces with other NGOs, including Greenpeace, Guy Salmon’s Ecologic, and the Fish and Game Council to push hard on John Key and his rookie Environment Minister, Amy Adams.

The first time it worked. The Government strengthened a crucial clause in new legislation both protecting and allowing development of the Exclusive Economic Zone. The second concerted effort – with all six organisations decrying proposed changes to the Resource Management Act in an open letter to Adams – may struggle to do as well.

In its second term, the Government is spooked at the disruption to the asset sales, exhausted by Christchurch, sick of people who don’t get that we can’t be too choosy when we’re sitting on exploitable assets and need the dough.

An impatience is creeping in, evidenced by the politically tribal refusal to engage with the Pure Advantage clean-tech lobby, believing the whole thing to be some Labour plot rather than a potentially powerful source of momentum for new enterprises based on science and innovation. It’s there in Joyce’s undiscriminating attitude to mineral extraction. Mining the ‘black smoker’ volcanic eco-systems in the depths of the Kermadec Trench should look different to Joyce from, say, mining ironsands or phosphate in areas where there are damn-all fish. Apparently, they don’t.

Where Todd McLay is right to think his Rotorua constituents would riot if the tourism industry shut down overnight, Joyce is over-reaching by seeming so keen to degrade environmental law and regulation to exploit natural resources.

It frustrates the Nats, because they dearly want the country to grow faster and they know it could be done. But getting this tree-hugging country’s populace along for the resources ride will require finesse. The blunderbuss approach can only end in tears.

Pattrick Smellie is a Wellington journalist and founder of the Businessdesk news service.