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Why the country needs the Greens

Tuesday, 1 February 2005

Why the country needs the Greens

A speech at the first sitting of Parliament for 2005, delivered by Green Party Co-Leader Jeanette Fitzsimons

I would like to begin by acknowledging the support the Government and the Prime Minister are giving the Greens in election year. Once again the Prime Minister has delivered a speech where she talks about "a sustainable future" and "a better quality of life" without a single reference to ensuring we protect and invest in the ecological foundations on which this quality is based. That's right: the environment doesn't rate a mention, not once, in the Prime Minister's vision for the future of our country.

You would never guess that the Government's own research company recently told us that 95 percent of our lowland rivers and streams are not fit to swim in, let alone to drink. You would never guess that 65 wild rivers are threatened with hydro development. You wouldn't guess that our vehicles kill more people with what comes out of their exhaust pipes than by running them over. You wouldn't guess that people are dying and seriously ill from toxic waste which was sprayed on them in Vietnam or on New Zealand farms in the era of 2,4,5-T; which was manufactured near them in New Plymouth; or which permeates their land around timber treatment sites.

As people return from their summer holidays, they are talking of the changes they have seen: favourite beaches now built up, favourite camping grounds sold for private development, sewage spills, a loss of the unspoiled character of the New Zealand coast. This is what they mean by quality of life, not just how much money they earn. We fear that the liberalisation of foreign investment in the Overseas Investment Bill will accelerate this trend and Rod will be talking more about that.

Others are seeing their quality of life threatened by the prospect of power lines much larger than anything we have seen so far in New Zealand marching across the landscapes they love and even over their homes and gardens. There are alternatives to those lines but the Government is not actively pursuing them, just leaving it to the market and a state-owned enterprise bent on empire-building. Those who focus on economics as a measure of everything simply don't understand that, for many of the people affected, compensation is not the answer. We have had numerous surveys both very recent and going back to the seventies that show a majority of Kiwis would trade some income and wealth for better quality of life. And they define that as the social and environmental conditions that they live in.

That is why the country, and a Labour government, needs the Greens: to protect our land, our water, our air, our food, and the other creatures we share the planet with. Labour on its own can't be trusted to do that.

Maori are also not focussed solely on economics. Economic development is crucial if Maori are to participate fully in society. But unless we also address the quality of the relationship under the Treaty, and build dialogue, tolerance and understanding, we will not make progress as a nation.

The number of people who gathered in Rotorua this last weekend to make a stand against the field trial of genetically-engineered pine and spruce trees show that opposition to GE is still a very live issue. But it seems to have moved somewhat off the Government's horizon. In previous speeches, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen have lauded biotechnology as the great white hope of the knowledge economy to make money for New Zealand. The failures of GE overseas seem to have moderated this stance and today we're pleased to see there is no mention at all. With Monsanto shown to have bribed government regulatory officials in Indonesia, GE companies pulling out of the EU and Australia, massive stock market losses by GE agriculture firms, and a crisis from weeds and herbicide poisoning in Argentina, it's clear that we would have lost nothing by keeping our moratorium in place and benefiting from the international reputation this would have given us.

Despite the lifting of the moratorium, against the wishes of 70 percent of New Zealanders, there have been no applications for release. But it demands that we be eternally vigilant. For that reason, and to keep our 2002 election promise to the 70 percent of the people who support us on this issue, I move that all the words in the motion on the floor after "this House has no confidence" be omitted and replaced by "in the Labour-led Minority Government because, despite there being some positive elements in its programme, its decision to allow the release of genetically-engineered organisms exposes our health, our environment, and our economy to significant and quite unnecessary risks".

I look forward to the day when the Greens will no longer need to move no confidence in the Government. Labour could win our support this month by supporting Ian Ewen-Street's Member's Bill restoring the moratorium. Or it could win it after the election with a post-election policy agreement for a new government that includes progress on the GE issue.

The Prime Minister has foreshadowed some improvements in childcare, housing, workplace, super, and addressing the causes of crime, all of which we welcome and support, although there are few specifics. But she is curiously silent about the looming threats which put at risk our economy and therefore our way of life. New Zealand has had five years now of a booming economy. We have used that boom to foster increased consumption and done little to invest in an economy that can weather the shocks that are coming.

On the one hand, too many people have not participated in the good times, and poverty remains an issue, particularly for many of our children. This has meant poor housing, poor health, leading to poor education and unemployment.

On the other hand, those who have benefited from more money have nevertheless borrowed even more and the credit card economy means many households, as well as the nation as a whole, are living beyond their means. When the economic bubble bursts, as it must at some stage, those families will be particularly hard hit.

In my State of the Planet speech two weeks ago, I drew attention to authoritative voices warning us that we are very close to the point where world demand for oil will outstrip the capacity of the oilfields to supply. I have been pleasantly surprised at how this seems to have resonated with the public. The Greens are up significantly in both the polls this week and today are the only third party to be above 5 percent. In fact, very comfortably above 5 percent.

We have had many affirmations but I'd like to address the few arguments the sceptics have managed to muster.

The simplistic response is that technology will always find a way. That denies that there are any limits at all to planetary resources and amounts to a "close your eyes and hope" approach. More sophisticated is the argument that rising prices will make oil exploration more worthwhile so we will find more; it will make development of tar sands and oil shales economic and those resources are large; and it will suppress demand so that oil production can cope.

The last argument about suppressing demand is just saying that either we will become more energy efficient - which is exactly what the Greens are proposing we do - or that the poor will miss out as prices rise. This latter proposal is not something we want to encourage in a fair and inclusive society. I would like to think we can keep ahead of oil scarcity with energy efficiency but the evidence is that we are not even meeting our current very mild target with current policies. In the first year of the National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy, we managed a 2 percent improvement but last year it was zero. We need a big policy and funding shift if we are to do better than that.

Oil exploration always drills the easiest targets first. Oil discoveries peaked in the sixties and has dropped sharply ever since, despite continued effort. At present, we are finding about one barrel for every four we are using and no-one can say the price hasn't been good over the last year. Oil shale and tar sands are vast, but they yield little net energy because it takes so much oil to exploit them. As the price of fuel rises, the cost of extracting these heavy, dirty inaccessible and environmentally very destructive oils will rise with it. In short, if $55 a barrel was going to make oil shale economic, we would be into it now.

The New Zealand Herald reports today that OPEC sees its target price of US$22-28 a barrel as "unrealistic" and analysts are anticipating it will be moved to around $40. Today's price of US$47.95 a barrel suggests they may have underestimated again.

Nor can we turn to coal. For one thing, it's an extremely dirty and dangerous process, leaving destroyed landscapes and toxic wastes. But secondly, the carbon emissions would be astronomical, at a time when all the reports coming in on climate change suggest that we have seriously underestimated this threat to our economy and our way of life.

The rapid melting of the Arctic sea ice took everyone by surprise and is itself accelerating climate change because the darker colour of the exposed ocean traps more heat. Release of the methane hydrates from thawing tundra would do the same, on a larger scale. Last week's report from the UK says that if we don't turn carbon emissions around in the next decade, we will not stop runaway climate change, whatever we do after that. A doubling of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, once seen as the limit of acceptable change, now looks very dangerous. Long before we could get oil-to-coal underway, the reasons not to start will be overwhelmingly obvious to everyone, even the Act Party.

What is the government doing about this?

The Prime Minister says we will "provide leadership in making this country relevant to and engaged in Asia's future" by exhibiting at the World Expo in Aichi, Japan this year. What she doesn't say is that the Government's "Foundation Partner" in the New Zealand pavilion will be our coal company, Solid Energy. Is this how we want to be known in Asia? A country that profiles itself as wanting to sell them the means to change their climate, destroy their food production, raise their sea levels, threaten their biodiversity, and cause droughts and floods?

There are several worrying proposals on the table for new coal developments. The Government has not discouraged them. Nor has it addressed the inefficiency of our vehicle fleet which could be double what it is with proper standards. It is still building new motorways which won't even be paid off by the time oil prices shrink our use of cars. Unsustainable transport is a big contributor to our growing balance of payments deficit. Petroleum and its products imports increased by 21.7 percent last year. Vehicles, parts and accessories increased by 7.4 percent and this is the largest single category.

But this Government does understand about climate change. It has done some worthwhile things with carbon credits and new renewables. The Prime Minister says in her speech that we must ensure as much of our energy comes from renewables as possible. We want to help them meet that goal.

What the Greens were hoping for in the Prime Minister's speech was some recognition that there is a serious economic problem here; an announcement of investment in reducing our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels; a commitment to help our industries adjust; and a refocus of our trade policy to make it relevant to the twenty-first century.

The Prime Minister says she is building a nation of fairness and opportunity and tolerance, in which every New Zealander has a stake. But too many New Zealanders are falling even further behind. As the Listener has pointed out, a survey of 25 of New Zealand's leading companies shows that the average pay rise of their CEOs last year was 25 percent. In one year. This compares with 2.4 percent in the average ordinary-time weekly earnings in the year to September 2004, which Westpac says is, for most people, below the inflation rate. Statistics NZ shows that, since 2000, the split of national income has moved in favour of capital and away from workers, despite the present low unemployment rate. This is extraordinary for a Labour government and it suggests that, while National is driving a wedge between the working and non-working poor, Labour is also drifting away from those most in need, who used to be its constituency.

Sue Bradford will speak later this evening on some of our solutions to address this inequity but I can illustrate them with reference to the Prime Minister's wish to increase savings and asset ownership and to encourage people, especially women, off the benefit and into work. If the incentives to work are not strong enough, I don't understand why the Government doesn't follow its own belief in the market, which says that if something is in short supply you pay more for it.

We could do more to encourage people off benefits by raising the minimum wage, making it worthwhile. Less than $12 an hour is not much of an incentive to take on the extra costs of going to work, especially if you have children at home. I'm not surprised there is a shortage of seasonal workers for fruit picking and packing when I look at the wages, the living conditions in some places, and the uncertainty of whether there will be work at all.

The income must be there before you can save or invest it.

We welcome proposals to help people save: for housing, super, and work. But many people will never be able to save because of millstone of student debt around their necks. Government should address this by letting past students work it off by contributing to New Zealand society, and present and future students borrowing less by having a universal student allowance. To help prepare for the coming crises, we need our best and brightest at home and contributing here.

The Prime Minister says we are short of workers and wants to encourage more women into the workforce. We welcome more resources for childcare which give women a genuine choice but the Government must not pressure women to leave their kids if they want to raise them themselves. Raising children is some of the most important work you can do and women must be free to choose to do it themselves if they want. There is a strong feeling that this Government does not regard raising children as "real work", yet they want to address the causes of crime and ensure all children have a good education, which needs support from home. The State, in our view, should be neutral on whether parents work while their children are small, and should support them whichever choice they make.

Opposition parties are calling for a tax cut, and that is seen as a defining issue in this election year. Greens welcome a debate on tax because we want to debate the more important issue of what should be taxed. There is no particular reason why it should be incomes, profits, and retail spending. We need to use the tax system to prepare to weather the shocks ahead, shifting tax off the things we want to encourage (work, incomes, profits) and on to the things we want to discourage (scarce resources, waste, pollution). Carbon tax should start now. Kyoto has been ratified. It's time we sent a clear signal that fossil fuels will be relatively more expensive and renewables .

This weekend, thousands of people have visited the Sustainable Living Expo in Christchurch. Some came to my talk on peak oil and stayed to discuss our options. They were well-informed. Businesses exhibited a range of contributions to a sustainable future: electric commuter scooters, clean burning and efficient wood fires and the fuel for them, solar water heaters of many models, water efficiency, sustainable building technologies, wind turbines. This is what we should be showcasing to the rest of the world, rather than coal. Business - some business - and consumers - some consumers - are leading the way to a future that uses resources wisely. It's time for governments to follow.


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