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Taking the Long View: John Key failed coming generations

Submitted to Scoop, 17 April 2017

Taking the Long View: John Key failed coming generations

By Gord Stewart

Funny the things you remember.

It’s now five months since John Key hastily resigned as prime minister. Some say he vanished without a trace. But that’s not possible when you hold a position of such power and authority for eight years. What you champion, what you block, basically what you stand for, all have an effect beyond – even well beyond – your time in office.

I remember the 2011 election when National campaigned on a partial sell-off of state assets. Surveys at the time showed nearly two-thirds of Kiwis opposed such sales. National received 47 percent of the party vote and required the support of minor parties to form a government. The prime minister then said he had a mandate for the asset sales, which just goes to show you don’t have to be very good at numbers to be a successful currency trader – or a prime minister.

I remember a health promotion advisory group formed early in the Government’s tenure. As I recall, there was no one with professional experience in health promotion appointed. Individuals with ties to the National party were on it and even one who had lobbied the government on behalf of the alcohol and junk food industries. When questioned (make that criticised) on the latter appointment, the prime minister replied that all points of view were important.

The Government’s approach to forming a committee (or choosing a mediator or investigator) – that is, pick people you like and you’ll get the result you want – would be a recurring theme under John Key (think David Bain compensation, think the Panama Papers).

Other approaches to get what you want have been used by the Government, including restrictions on what could be examined or proposed (think the Green Growth Advisory Group) or by cherry picking or ignoring recommendations (think the Land and Water Forum).

Sustainability is about social justice, economic resilience, and environmental responsibility. I’m struggling to remember significant steps taken in any of these areas under a John Key Government.

To the contrary we have seen rising inequality, exemplified by policies favouring property investors (even non-residents) over the rightful needs of young Kiwis.

We have people living in cars, and on maraes and in motels as a stop-gap measure, but no housing ‘crisis’ according to the Government. We had an unfair “zero-hour contracts” employment policy which National would happily have maintained had it not been outed in heroic efforts by John Campbell.

Last October the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child called on New Zealand to devote more resources to tackling “deeply concerning” high rates of child poverty.

The OECD and the International Monetary Fund have called for a capital gains tax here that can actually make a difference – one that emulates the efficient and equitable schemes operating in the likes of Australia, Norway, Sweden, the UK and Canada.

Meanwhile, funds from asset sales have gone into new irrigation schemes and agricultural intensification. This, in turn, puts pressure on water quality by drawing water away from the environment and by return flows (irrigation run-off) to rivers of markedly lower quality. The situation for rivers in these intensive agricultural areas is dire and only likely to improve when there is a change to Nationals’ long-held policies of catering to its rural constituents and short-term economic gain at all costs.

On the urban front, the Government’s slow and unenthusiastic response to Auckland’s public transportation needs increases the likelihood the city’s future will be more like Los Angeles than Melbourne.

This is all part of the Key legacy, of course, but arguably the most important issue is climate change.
John Key led a Government at a moment in time when the evidence was in and transformative change was needed. A time when all options had to be considered and bold action was called for.

So during that time, National virtually gutted the Emissions Trading Scheme established by the previous government, put no practical policies in place to reduce agriculture greenhouse gas emissions (our greatest source at nearly 50 percent of the total), and CO2 emissions only continued to rise.

National remains committed to oil and gas exploration at a time when only one-fifth of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves can safely be burned. The then prime minister referred to the thoughtful and informed people who took to the beach to protest offshore oil exploration as a “rent a crowd”.

New Zealand’s climate reduction pledge to the Paris Climate Accord, signed last year, can only be described as morally irresponsible.

Every National MP is complicit in this along with John Key. In future decades when the impacts of climate change are dramatic and ever present, their grandchildren and other young people of the time will have a right to ask: “When you knew there was such a problem, why didn’t you do what was necessary?”

I just want to know: What will their answer be?

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Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry, and non-profit organisations.

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