Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mixing it

This just in: the Greens are a political party. It ought not to be news, but it seems to be having that effect on Sue Bradford, John Pagani and some other commentators. They’re throwing up their hands in horror at the idea that the Greens might, just possibly might, enter into some kind of agreement to work with or support a National-led government.

The Bradford version goes something like this: when Rod Donald was alive, the Green Party was unflinching in its resolve not to have anything to do with National. Then he died and other counsels began insidiously to prevail—to the point where, says Sue, ‘The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand has now joined the majority of Green Parties around the world who believe that in the struggle to save the planet Greens should support any party in government with whom they can cut good enough deals.’

To this extraordinary statement, there is only one valid response, and I’d like to give it now. Be patient for a moment while I get it ready. Okay. I think I’ve got it together. Here it comes. This is it:


If a deal of any sort (ranging from memorandum of understanding to full coalition) was ‘good enough’ for the Greens, why on earth wouldn’t they sign up to it? They’re a political party, for goodness’ sake (I don’t know why I have to keep saying that), and the aim of all political activity is to make your ideas happen.

Of course there are always tradeoffs between principle and practicality; as my old mate T S Eliot was fond of saying, ‘Beween the idea and the reality falls the shadow.’ Sue Bradford knows that as well as anyone. In a democracy nobody gets everything they want, not even governments, and least of all minor parties. Australian Green leader Bob Brown made this plain at the New Zealand Greens’ conference when he said his party would inevitably have to compromise on the nature of a carbon tax (‘We are responsible about this’).

There seems to be a deep wish on the part of some people for the Greens to remain pure, pristine and uncontaminated by the mucky business of making compromises and deals in order to get power or influence those who have it. Some journalists parrot this nonsense: ‘It's hard to imagine them stooping to grubby politics as their big party rivals often do,’ writes political reporter Adam Bennett in the New Zealand Herald.

A cynic might even say that someone like John Pagani has a vested interested in keeping the Greens pegged in their ‘pure’ corner, well away from any prospect of supplanting Labour as a major party. ‘The Greens,’ says Pagani, apparently while gazing down from some Olympian height, ‘are trying to have it both ways, and in doing so they risk having neither.’

Like, Labour never tries to have it both ways? Never ever tries to strike a balance by deciding on policies that please some constituencies while not wholly pissing off others? Come on, John. Why not come straight out and say that it suits Labour to keep the Greens from growing?

The fact is, sooner or later the Green Party has to start mixing it. Whatever value was once extracted from being seen to somehow stand apart from the normal ruck of politics is long past its use-by date. They have to enter the arena and horse-trade like any other party (which they do already anyway, at a less visible level). There will be failures, of course, and embarrassments, and keepers of the sacred green flame will cry foul. But it’s time to—the horror, the horror!—get down and dirty (with good organic soil, of course).

It makes political sense at voter level too. if there’s one thing about the Greens that gets up people’s noses it’s this constant banging on about how different and special they are. If they are ever to become the government, which I believe is entirely possible, then they won’t do it by being holier-than-thou.

In any case, having said all the above, the Greens have hardly rushed madly towards National’s arms, all dewy-eyed and panting at the prospect of a sniff of power. Far from it. Both co-leaders and the party’s annual conference have been at pains to stress that going into coalition with National remains highly unlikely. And it is. Frankly, given the current state of the Labour Party, I’m not sure they’re much more of an appealing option anyway.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A lighter shade of jail

Holy restorative justice! Someone must be putting something in cabinet ministers’ tea. First it was Bill English raising eyebrows left, right and centre—but mainly left—by declaring that prisons are a ‘moral and fiscal failure’ and the Government will build no more of them. Now Judith Collins is saying the same thing. Is this a pitch for the liberal lovey-dovey vote or what? Okay, so they haven’t exactly explained what their alternatives are, enlightened or otherwise, and what’s going to happen to all those people being sentenced to longer terms under the Government’s (up to now, anyway) get-tough penal policy, but it’s a start. We’ll take it. We just need some reassurance that in their eyes the real failure is moral, not fiscal, otherwise the whole thing might look like just another excuse for cutting state spending. Or, worse, a reason to unload more and more responsibility for incarceration onto the private sector. Can moral failure be privatized? Probably.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tina redux

Nick Smith has kindly confirmed my view of his so-called environmental protection law by saying: ‘It is the pressure on land-based resources grows, that there will be more activity out in the ocean environment, for petroleum, for mining...'

Inevitable? We hear here the ghost of Tina ('There Is No Alternative'), the poster girl of Rogernomics, who was used to excuse every policy from floating the dollar to sinking the state sector. Nothing is inevitable in politics, Nick. Some things may be less possible than others, that's all. You're in government to tell the difference, not to shrug and walk away.

Your mate Steven Joyce, for instance, has no problem not regarding peak oil as inevitable. He's building roads and motorways as if all transport options remain on the table, unchanged since the day the first Model T Ford rolled off the assembly line. Take a tip from him: go on, laugh in the face of 'inevitability.'

New Zealand's choice for the kind of country it wants to be may be limited but they're not so narrow as to resemble a tunnel. With our abundant hydro, tidal and wind energy sources, for instance, there is absolutely no reason why, in the long run, we couldn't become a country entirely free from dependence on fossil fuels.

Which, by the way, aren't going to last forever, or even for the rest of this century. And that's inevitable.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Option block

Let us go back, back, back in time to that misty day last November—was it only then?—that the Dominion Post told Wellingtonians: ‘Five options to fix traffic woes around the Basin Reserve—including three flyover proposals—will be released later this month.’ The paper also quoted New Zealand Transport Agency regional director Deborah Hume saying that public consultation on these options would start ‘within the next month.’

Curiously, no such consultation took place, and curiouser still, the Transport Agency has now announced that there are only two options, and they’re both flyovers.

Clearly, in the spirit of the great age of motoring, the agency has taken its cue from Henry Ford, who said you could have his cars in any colour you liked, so long as it was black.

Equally clearly, in the spirit of the great age of mass manipulation, the agency is treating the people of Wellington with contempt. It has stalled and stalled on revealing details or even broad plans for what it would like to do around the Basin Reserve, and even now is still withholding maps and graphics of the proposed flyovers. As for the other options that might have been—no sign of them and no opportunity for anyone to be ‘consulted’ about them, for whatever that may be worth. And even if there were, the whole issue has been framed in such a way as to exclude consideration of whether major new roads are needed at all.

Anyone with a working knowledge of this issue knows that the Transport Minister and the Transport Agency privately made up their minds a long time ago that a flyover will be built no matter what the objections and, indeed, no matter what the cost/benefit ratio. Similarly with a second Mt Victoria tunnel. And with a four-lane highway through Hataitai to the airport. All done and dusted, no question of that. The only question now is whether they can brazen it out publicly long enough to make each of these Think Big projects a fait accompli. People of Wellington, your fait is in your hands.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


—news headline

Does this qualify as a mea cuppa?

Licence to drill

At first sight it looks like good news for the oceans around New Zealand: Nick Smith announces legislation that will make the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) responsible for approving and monitoring drilling activities offshore.

The new law, which Smith wants to take effect on 1 July 2012, will cover not only the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends from 12 to 200 kilometres offshore, but the extended continental shelf beyond that.

This, he says, will ensure we have robust laws in place to protect the marine environment, and what’s not to like about that?—given the concern over Petrobras’s exploration of the seabed off the East Cape, which triggered serious protest action.

Unpacking Smith’s statement, however, it’s not too hard to argue that, far from putting in place ‘robust laws’ to protect the environment, this move will make it even easier for oil companies to do precisely what they want in the waters off New Zealand.

Smith gives the game away, in fact, when he acknowledges that the existing guidelines on offshore drilling are ‘unenforceable.’ Meaning, the Government’s currently on shaky ground—or rough water—when it seeks to defend what the likes of Petrobras are up to. It might even find that, if taken to court, it could not defend such activity. It needs to be able to tell protesters (and voters) that what the drillers are doing is legal.

How nice it would be to believe that no ocean will be harmed in the implementing of this law. But so much depends on the body responsible for administering it, the EPA, and the very reason this government created the EPA in the first place was to give ‘major resource consent applicants’ a fast-track way of bypassing the Resource Management Act—an act considered by National to be so obstructive to developers that it passed a law specifically aimed at ‘simplifying and streamlining’ it. It was under his act that the EPA was established.

Some protecting of the environment will undoubtedly take place under the new authority’s aegis, but it exists above all to make straight and quick the way of those wishing to exploit the environment for economic ends. As outlined by Smith, it will be charged with a ‘general duty to avoid, remedy or mitigate adverse environmental effects,’ a provision you could drive a fifty-foot pipeline through. The EPA is National’s way of saying to developers and drillers: ‘No need to queue over there and then sit through months of boring old consent hearings; just step this way and we’ll have you processed, approved and on your way in no time.’

And if you still prefer to think it will be a nice neutral independent body not beholden to the Government or pro-development lobbies, just look at its board membership, announced today: not one of the eight comes from a purely ecological perspective, and no one with a genuine track record in environmental protection is represented—unless you want to count Richard Woods, a former diplomat who was parked at the head of the Environmental Resource Management Authority after running the SIS for a few years.

Most of the members have business backgrounds; and the chair of the new board is that noted greenie, former Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast.

The only thing green about this board—which, by the way, is also charged with managing the Emissions Trading Scheme—will be the green light it gives the world’s oil and gas companies to set up their rigs within spilling distance of New Zealand.

As Smith helpfully reminds us, ‘This area of ocean, 20 times New Zealand's land area, offers significant economic opportunities.’ Believe it. The legislation is designed to expedite, not hinder or cramp, those ‘opportunities.’ Already the managing director of one firm (Chatham Rock Phosphate) has said it will help them explore for phosphate on the Chatham Island rise. This bill is a licence to drill.