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Jeanette Fitzsimons: Left, Right and the Elephant

4 June 2006

Jeanette Fitzsimons - Left, Right and the Elephant

Today is a new beginning, as I am joined on the platform by our new Co-Leader Russel Norman. It's a relief to be able to share the job that I've done alone for the last seven months and I'm grateful to Russel for taking it on. I'm proud that the Greens have conducted a totally democratic and constructive process and that the candidates have been far more united in their commitment to the Green cause than divided by the competitive nature of elections.

It is also part of a transition as the next generation comes forward to take up the baton. I'm looking forward to working with Russel; with his considerable political and strategic skills and his energy and enthusiasm.

The intense debate around the leadership has inevitably raised issues of the party's direction and the old debate of where the Greens are on the left-right continuum has surfaced again.

My advice is to beware of old fashioned political labels from last century and the one before, at least until you have defined what they mean.

It reminds me of calling on an elderly lady during the 1993 election who invited me in for tea. "I really like your policies" she said,"and I'd like to vote for you, but I'm just a bit worried that you are too left wing".

"Well", I said, "if wanting everyone to have access to good quality health and education whether they can pay for it or not, and being willing to pay the taxes to fund it; if wanting everyone to have a decent job that contributes to society; if thinking that New Zealand should own its key assets itself rather than selling them off to overseas, are left wing, then I guess we are".

"Oh," she said "I believe all those things too".

She had no idea what she meant by left, but she had heard someone say it of us, and as a term of disapproval. Others, especially those who have fought for the rights of workers to fair wages and a decent and safe working environment will wear it as a badge of honour.

Words will mean different things and have different emotional baggage to different people and if they are a barrier to real communication we are better not to use them.

Left and right started off meaning where you sat in relation to the President in revolutionary France. But in New Zealand, where the centre point keeps moving all over the room, what do the terms mean then?

The right wing revolution in New Zealand in the eighties, which put hundreds of thousands out of work, sold public assets like the rail system, the forests, Telecom, cut taxes to encourage productive investment but achieved just the opposite, and led to double digit inflation and interest rates well over 20% was led by a supposedly left wing party.

The centre has shifted so radically over the last 20 years that Muldoon and Holyoake economics look positively left.

Yet that same revolution stopped the subsidies on dumping 650 tonnes a year of 2,4,5-T on Nz farms and families, and that we have to support.

Where the Greens are on this left-right continuum depends on the question you ask. Where do we sit in the old battle between lower taxes or more social services? Undoubtedly on the left. But if the battle is between tax cuts and a massive spending splurge on new roads in the middle of a long term oil crisis, we might even go for the tax cuts.

The Greens have always identified with the oppressed and the disadvantaged, whether it is Tibet under Chinese rule, Iraqis under Bush's bombs, children beaten by their parents under the protection of s59, the victims of climate change or NZ families who can't afford decent housing and food because they are living on a benefit and get almost nothing from working for Families. That would seem to position us on the left.

But we also reject the model of the big all powerful state that makes all decisions for people, in favour of a community model that empowers. We want to encourage people to take responsibility for their own lives and for their families and others in their community as far as their circumstances allow, and that has more in common with some elements of the right.

On the question of regulation we want clear and binding rules for powerful corporations that control the resources that ultimately belong to us all; but minimal rules and maximum choice for what people do in their private lives that doesn't affect others, and so we supported civil union legislation and decriminalisation of prostitution.

The right tries to portray us as anti-market; yet our climate change policies use market mechanisms to encourage renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable forestry, by charging the true costs of all economic activity. So does our new Waste Bill, soon to have its first reading.

The real problem is that left-right politics ignores the elephant sitting in the middle of the room - the elephant that no-one dares name - the elephant we call "unsustainable growth"..

Does it matter if you are sitting on the left or the right of the bus when it is heading over a cliff?

What the Greens bring to politics is a new dimension that cannot be described as left or right. In recognising that humanity has outstripped the capacity of the earth to supply endlessly growing consumption and absorb endlessly growing wastes we part company with both right and left. In Parliament we are dealing with two major parties (and several minor ones) who are arguing about how best to do nothing about climate change; nothing about toxic materials; nothing about unsustainable land use. They are all arguing about how to grow the economy faster; yet we know endless growth is the source of ecological collapse and social inequity and disintegration.

National doesn't recognise any limits to growth.

Nor does Labour, in practice. It says growth must be "sustainable" but doesn't understand what that means, or have any plans on how to get there. I asked Helen Clark how Fonterra could achieve its target of growing dairy product by 5 per cent a year without growing unsustainable nutrient runoff, water use for irrigation and electricity use at the same time. She said it could grow its business overseas. This seems to suggest Labour does recognise the downside of expansion of dairying on our lands, waters and energy demand, but is still committed to the concept of an infinite world where there is always somewhere else to move to.

The public, on the other hand, are starting to join the new paradigm.

Since the climate change conference in March there has been a noticeable shift and the climate deniers in the so-called Climate "Science" Coalition find themselves with little support for their head in the sand attitudes. Climate change and peak oil have become part of the discourse of New Zealanders in letters to the editor and conversations in the street.

Surveys in Auckland and letters to the Herald are almost without exception in favour of building better public transport, rail and safe cycling facilities rather than more new roads. There are frequent calls for solar water heating to be compulsory - in fact they want to push that one faster than industry can build its capacity to deliver..

The Greens this year are focussing our work on building a sustainable economy and future-proofing our nation, our communities, our homes and our lives against the threats of insecure energy supplies, changing climate, growing waste and an unreliable world market. More and more of the public are with us, as long as we can explain clearly the connection between these global trends and what they are experiencing in their own lives.

Business is starting to move in this direction too. It is clear that we cannot have a sustainable economy without sustainable business; and that business will not commit to sustainability unless they can make it work for their bottom line and their shareholders.

I've been meeting with a number of businesses this year who have adopted a goal of sustainability, to find out more about their goals and their problems. No one yet has told me the main thing they want is tax cuts. What they have said they want is a stable operating environment where they know what the rules are and they can make investment decisions on that basis. This is why the axing of the carbon charge has disadvantaged all businesses that were trying to become more sustainable. Those who had invested in renewable energy or energy efficiency are left wondering whether their investment was misplaced, and whether their unsustainable competitors will now gain an advantage.

This effect isn't just confined to the period between 2002 when the climate policy was announced, and now; it will carry on indefinitely as some will hang back from needed investment, unsure whether they can trust the new policy to endure.

Responsible industry also wants standards. I often hear the complaint that environmental and energy standards for products are avoided by imports that undercut quality local production and that no-one monitors and enforces compliance with standards that are set. We know there is very little monitoring and enforcement of RMA consent conditions and there is a perception that these are widely flouted too.

Another common cry from businesses I've met with is for Government to put its money where its mouth is. Why is there not a sustainability requirement for all government purchases? Why are Crown cars and ministerial cars not models of fuel efficiency and low emissions? What is Government's own performance like in terms of the Waste Strategy? Why have all select committee rooms recently had their carafes of water and glasses replaced by water coolers using electricity 24/7 and plastic disposable cups? Why are there no sustainability requirements for government investments like the Super fund?

What message would you take from this if you were a business struggling to reduce your own footprint on the earth but also mindful of the expectation of your shareholders?

Even in this negative climate for sustainable investment, there are stand out examples. Honda's decision to make small efficient cars smart and hi-tech, and to meet and exceed the air quality emissions standards others said were unachievable. Fonterra's decision to use rail for all its transport between the Waikato and the Port of Tauranga, even opening new lines to achieve this. Landcare Research's new low energy zero waste and water conserving building in Auckland which has created the benchmark for all new commercial buildings.

These companies are smart. They are future proofing their business against rising oil prices, the need to reduce the load on our rapidly filling landfills, the need to unclog the roads by moving heavy freight on to five times more fuel efficient rail, and a public that are increasingly demanding that the businesses they use are taking environmental concerns seriously.

They need help from government. Not in the form of handouts, but in the form of fair pricing that charges everyone the true costs of the resources they use and the waste they create. These companies would benefit from a price on carbon; from levies on waste to landfill; from charges for commercial use of scarce water resources.

They would doubly benefit from this approach to ecological tax reform because other taxes would be lower as a result. Responsible business would pay less tax overall, polluting and resource gobbling business would pay more.

They would also benefit from government endorsement of what they are doing, and government action to lead sustainability as the way of the future.

Ideally we would have all parties competing to provide the best operating environment for people, communities and companies to be more sustainable. So I was delighted to read last month Nick Smith's address to a National Party regional conference where he said National would be targeting one in 20 of the Green Party's votes by convincing them National would be better for the environment.

The more the other parties lift their game the better it will be for New Zealand and we are up for the contest any time. I looked ahead in the speech to see what National was offering. Perhaps Don Brash had seen the light on climate change? Perhaps they were going to back off their strong support for coal and flooding ecological areas for power and their hinting at nuclear power? Perhaps they will support waste levies or integrated catchment management for rivers or stricter rules on bottom trawling? Perhaps they have some ideas for doing better than the Greens policies on all these?

But no. Nick attacked Labour for its inept about-face on climate change policy but offered nothing in its place. National want to get rid of funding for energy efficiency because the country has not met its targets, ignoring the 25,000 homes that have been insulated and are warmer and drier, and the large number of products that have minimum energy performance standards, saving consumers and the country significant cost and significant carbon emissions - to name just two initiatives that have worked.

The Greens want to go much faster and further with energy efficiency. National wants to abandon it.

Nick says they can attract 5 per cent of the Green vote because Labour's environmental policies are not good enough. He's going to have to find better logic than that - and better policies. The Greens have not given Labour confidence and supply since 2002. We can hardly be blamed for their lack of action on the environment.

There are a few interesting ideas in Nick's speech, but as usual, National is several years behind the play. He proposes a contestable fund to help communities "take some ownership of the conservation challenge". Well, on Thursday Waikato people were celebrating a grant of $5.5m for finishing the predator proof fence around Maungatautari ecological island, a community conservation initiative, paid from the contestable fund that exists now for precisely this purpose. Bit late Nick.

He also wants to "push the oil companies on the sulphur content of diesel". The new low sulphur standards have been set and the refinery is on track to meet them. Bit late on that one too.

National's idea for an EPA to manage environmental risk is worth exploring and we look forward to some detail. We have advocated it ourselves in the past. If they come up with something that will work better than now, we will of course support it.

But proposals to pay compensation to landowners for requiring them to respect the environment are dangerous, as they establish a property right to damage and pollute. So is the idea of allowing hunters to manage conservation land with deer on it, and recreational fishers to decide where marine reserves should go, if anywhere.

As I've said before, National and Labour are closer to each other than either is to the Greens. We will work with each on individual policies, as we have thought the last 10 years. Relationships any closer than that will be made election by election, on the basis of whatever agreements we can negotiate on policy and principles, and they will be announced in advance.

This was the position we took at the last election. We judged that a Brash-led government would be bad for New Zealand and that we could form some common ground with Labour. We announced at our campaign closing the key dozen policies we would hope to be able to implement if we were working in a Green-Labour government after the election. That was not offered, so we find ourselves in a position of independence, abstaining on confidence and supply votes.

Some of us are starting to draw the conclusion that Labour will never share power with its friends, only with its enemies, who might otherwise provide crucial support to the other side of the House.

Many commentators have been surprised at what we have been able to negotiate in our co-operation agreement, in the areas where we are working together. Obviously these do not include issues like trade, or the government's one-eyed commitment to economic growth at all costs. But we have achieved budget initiatives even in a budget we are not voting for.

We have concentrated on initiatives that will start the process of economic transformation towards sustainability. So our largest achievement in dollar terms, led by Metairie, is to build capacity to deliver education for sustainability - previously referred to as environmental education - in schools. There can be no more important task than future proofing the next generation against the challenges of resource scarcity and environmental collapse. The more they understand about the ecological processes on which our lives depend, the better they will be able to lead the changes that have to be made.

Sue Bradford has secured funding for three years for the Buy Kiwi Made programme and I know Rod would be proud to see how Sue has carried his brain child forward and developed it into a real programme. Buy Kiwi Made has the potential to support New Zealand business and New Zealand workers, to develop pride in New Zealand consumers in supporting them, and to reduce our huge balance of payments deficit where our excess of imports over exports gets more serious every year.

This project, and the energy efficiency/solar one, are breaking new ground. Sue and I effectively stand in the shoes of ministers and speak on behalf of government on these issues. It is a difficult balancing act and far more work than being the actual minister because a lot of time has to go into reassuring officials that they really are meant to do as we ask, as well as liaising with the Minister's office to ensure they are comfortable with what we are doing. The ministers remain accountable and have the final say so the success of the projects depends crucially on relationships - between Green spokespeople and ministers, and between us and officials.

I know there are high expectations in the party for enhanced energy efficiency and a solar water heating programme. Many people expected to see units going on roofs within a month of the election. What I have found is that there is a huge amount of ground work to do before the industry can deliver on our targets and that ground work is largely invisible. Funding for this has to wait until the policy for the programme has been accepted by Cabinet.

Sue Kedgley has negotiated funding for an organics advisory service to help conventional farmers who want help to convert to organics. This has been part of our policy since 1998 and I'm delighted to see it going ahead. Sue is also working with the Minister of Health to develop a Nutrition fund to improve health through better diet, and is chairing the Health select committee enquiry into Obesity and Type 2 diabetes, an issue the Greens have campaigned on for many years.

We have had extraordinary success this year with Members' bills.

Our Waste Bill, developed some years ago and sponsored by Mike, passed to Rod after the election, and then to Nandor who hit the jackpot and had it drawn last month. It's awaiting its first reading, and we understand Labour will support it to select committee.

Sue K's Consumer Right to Know Bill is also awaiting its first reading. It would require food labels to declare where food comes from; whether it contains GE ingredients and how eggs have been produced --eg from caged hens.

Sue's flexible working hours bill which would entitle parents with young children to request to work flexible hours that suit their families has been through select committee and is on hold while the officials gather more information about how much flexible working arrangements are available in New Zealand. We are hoping that it will get support to become law next year.

Sue Bradford has two bills at select committee: the repeal of s59, our legislated mandate for violence against children, which allows serious child abuse under the protection of "reasonable force"; and her bill to abolish youth rates and pay equal pay for equal work.

My RMA (climate protection) amendment Bill is also at select committee. It restores the power of regional councils to consider climate change emissions when issuing air discharge consents. This was taken away when the carbon charge was proposed, but now we have neither.

My other Member's bill, which held the record for the shortest time between drafting on the Wed night and drawing from the ballot on Thursday morning, failed its first reading by one vote. This would have removed the requirement for dogs other than dangerous and menacing and impounded dogs, to be micro-chipped. As the debate on this went on it became increasing clear to us that there is no evidence whatever that micro chipping will help reduce dog attacks and it may lead to widespread breaking of the present laws on dog registration. United Future's proposal to exempt just farm dogs had no principled basis and in the end Federated Farmers and the National party both supported my bill. It's not the end, as it will come before Parliament again as an amendment Metiria has achieved to another piece of legislation.

By any standards, this is an awesome legislative programme for just 6 people dependent on luck to even get bills considered.

Over the last seven months I think we have become an even closer knit team. We are enjoying our work and rejoice in each others' successes. We still feel Rod's absence very keenly, and sometimes he he rises up and hits us between the eyes in most unexpected ways. This will probably go on for quite some time. But I hope he can rest easier in the knowledge that we now have another pair of hands to help carry on the work, and I hand you over to the person you are all waiting to hear from - our new Co-Leader, Russel Norman.

ENDS

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