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A Bluegreen Vision for NZ

Dr Nick Smith MP
National Party Environment Spokesman

13 May 2006

A Bluegreen Vision for NZ

Speech to the National Party Lower North Island Regional Conference
Palmerston North.

My simple message to this conference is that National can do a better job of protecting New Zealand’s environment and ensure that we achieve that alongside our core goal of raising living standards.

This afternoon I want to talk about what recent polling data tells us about how New Zealanders think about the environment; about the strategic importance of the Green vote; about how the Government is failing our environment; and some ideas that I am putting up for discussion in the process of developing National Party environment policy.

I want to convince you that National must communicate to New Zealanders our commitment to protect the environment they cherish, and develop our own unique practical brand of environmentalism.

Let me first look to some fascinating recent polling data undertaken by the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development.

This organisation, representing 51 companies with a turnover of $33 billion a year, contracted UMR to do this polling work just over a month ago to get an insight into New Zealand’s thinking on environmental issues.

There are no big surprises in the raw voting intentions of New Zealanders that week that show National and Labour neck and neck at about 45% support. What gets more interesting is when they tested how strong those voting intentions were.

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The good news for National is that our vote was the most locked in, with only 37% indicating they may change their vote. The softest vote was for the Green Party, where 57% indicated they may vote differently, 48% for NZ First and 47% for Labour.

The issue that voters identified as most likely to change their vote was preserving the New Zealand quality of life. Surprisingly, NZ First responded most strongly, but a large portion of Green and Labour voters indicated they would potentially switch their votes if another party showed a strong commitment to New Zealand’s quality of life.

When prodded further on the issues of most concern, we get a flavour for what New Zealanders view as quality of life. They rated as most important fresh water quality, and issues like nitrification of iconic lakes like Rotoiti, and didymo in our southern rivers.

Their second issue was energy supply. This was of most concern to National voters, but also a biggie for Labour and Green supporters. Waste reduction and the effects of population growth were also issues voters identified with quality of life.

A powerful message from this poll is that 96% of electors wanted a government that supported economic growth alongside protecting the environment. I suspect they back National as the party of growth but have a question-mark over whether we are best for the environment.

There is another important strategic reason why we must strengthen our environmental platform.

The mechanics of MMP make the balance of power very sensitive to the Green vote. The Greens only just scraped back into Parliament with 5.3% of the Party Vote. Only 6,822 votes saved the Greens from political oblivion last year. This was not the first time they skirted around the cliff of political survival, because in 1999 they got only 5.1% of the Party Vote and only 3,400 votes saved their bacon.

How different the current Parliament would be if the Greens had not made it. Instead of a centre-left, centre-right balance of 61 to 60, the centre-right would have it 63 to 58. Those 6,822 votes for the Greens effectively stopped Don Brash being Prime Minister.

Let me put it another way. If we can convince just 1 in 20 of those Green voters that National is a better bet than the Greens, that alone would be enough, all other things being equal, for National to win in 2008.

There is a third reason for National to lift its game environmentally.

In 2005, the provinces came home to National with a vengeance, but in the central city electorates of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, the centre-left actually made gains at the expense of the centre-right. It is no coincidence that these are the same electorates that have consistently voted most strongly for the Greens with their Party Vote.

They are the urban liberals, the culture vultures, and they are environmentally aware. We need to do better on both these fronts to broaden our base. The political challenge is going to be to increase the support among these urban liberal voters while retaining our hugely increased support among provincial and rural New Zealand.

Many of these urban liberal voters share our values on tax and enterprise but did not come our way because they perceived us negatively on issues like the environment. Our plan is not to out-green the Greens but to show a genuine and substantive environment agenda so these voters feel comfortable ticking the blue party box.

Part of this job will be exposing Labour’s ineptitude on environmental issues. They have been long on spin but the substance of their policy is in tatters.

Take climate change. I know of no area of public policy in the past 20 years that is in as big a mess. We have had the fiasco of the Government proclaiming that New Zealand would make hundreds of millions of dollars from Kyoto only to now have to admit it’s going to cost New Zealanders more than $1 billion. We have had the U-turn over the animal emissions levy and the carbon tax.

The negotiated greenhouse agreements with major industry depended on the threat of a carbon tax to work, so that policy has fallen flat on its face. The tendering of projects to reduce emissions depended on there being surplus credits – which have now disappeared, and so this policy has been dropped.

The 10% cap on deforestation is one of the most barmy parts of Labour’s climate change policies. Because forest owners were threatened with huge carbon bills after 2008, they are taking chainsaws to their forests early. This is bad for the economy and bad for the environment. We have also had the bizarre spectacle of the Government moving amendments to the Resource Management Act to take climate change out in 2002 and only a month ago they vote for a bill to put it back in.

You will have heard the rhetoric from Helen Clark and Pete Hodgson damning the Australians and the Americans for not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol but it is interesting to note actual performance on greenhouse gas emissions. New Zealand’s emissions have, under Labour, increased at three times the rate of Australia and four times the rate of the United States. This has been driven by more of our power being produced by coal power stations and Labour’s failure to address growing traffic congestion problems that add to emissions.

You have to give Labour a big black mark for its climate-change policies. A related issue is that of energy efficiency.

In 2001, Labour announced a bold energy efficiency strategy that would have seen an improvement of 20% in the years to 2012. They have spent $22 million a year on this waffly strategy, and halfway through the period they have to admit failure. The irony in the recent review is that energy efficiency improved by 0.75% per annum under National in the preceding five years, but since we have had the strategy we have achieved only 0.4% per annum. They have wasted over $100 million on fuzzy PR that has achieved nothing. For this they deserve their second black mark.

Alongside their rhetoric about energy efficiency was the bold goal of shifting New Zealand’s energy to more renewable sources.

Yet the opposite has been achieved, and we are more dependent than ever on fossil fuels. The problem with the strategy was that the Government kept doing the exact opposite. They rejected renewable energy projects like Project Aqua and the Dobson Hydro scheme for spurious reasons and then wonder why we have become less sustainable in our energy use.

In just five years there has been a significant increase in dependence on coal for electricity generation. In 1999, the Huntly Power Station operated for an average of four hours a day. It was a peak-load station to provide power when we all got out of bed, had a shower, boiled the jug and cooked our toast. Now it is operating an average 18 hours a day. Coal produces three times the greenhouse gases as does the burning of natural gas, so it is little wonder New Zealand’s emissions have gone through the roof. Labour deserves another black mark for its failed policies on renewable energy.

A hugely important environmental issue for New Zealand is biosecurity.

Labour promised in 1999 to inspect all containers and imported used cars but has not done so. It has also overseen one biosecurity failure after another. There have been 150 incursions – or more than one a fortnight – during their tenure. Worse still, their reaction to biosecurity breaches has been slow and bureaucratic.

One of the most serious has been their incompetence in managing didymo.

This was discovered in Southland’s lower Wairau River in October 2004 by NIWA scientists, who immediately notified Biosecurity New Zealand, saying this was the most significant event to happen to New Zealand’s fresh waters in 50 years. How long do you think it took for the Government to act?

The Minister was briefed in November 2004, but it was unbelievable incompetence that no action was taken until November 2005. The tragedy is that didymo had already spread – two months earlier – to the Hawea and Clutha Rivers in Central Otago, the Oreti River and Lake Manapouri in Southland, the Waitaki and Ahuriri Rivers in Canterbury, and to my own playground, the Buller River in Nelson. No wonder regional councils, and fishing and tourism interests have been damning of the Government’s response.

Their response of too little too late has been similar on varroa bee mite, seasquirt and undaria. This Government deserves a very black mark on biosecurity.

Didymo is not the only threat to our fresh water quality.

The New Zealand Herald recently ran a series of features on our dying lakes. Iconic water bodies like Lake Rotoiti have had to be closed to all human contact because of toxic algae blooms caused by nitrification. Dozens of lakes are affected, and New Zealand’s hosting of the world rowing championships at Lake Karapiro has been threatened by algae problems.

There has also been a significant deterioration in the quality of many of our rivers. The recent report from the Parliamentary Commission for the Environment is quite damning about how poor many of our streams and rivers have become. Not only can you not drink water from many of these rivers now, but many also breach the much lower WHO standards for swimming.

In recent days we’ve also seen the repeated failure of sewerage systems in the Bay of Islands close oyster farms for the umpteenth time, and the Government run for cover and simply say it’s not its problem. New Zealand’s problems with water quality are serious and require practical and strong leadership from the Government – something this Government is not doing and for which it deserves another black mark.

An important environmental issue for cities like Auckland is air pollution.

This photo of the Queen City hardly looks like the 100% pure brand that New Zealand sells its tourism on. 80% of Auckland’s air pollution comes from motor vehicles, and this pollution kills 400 New Zealanders each year. This compares to 510 road fatalities. 50% of the emissions come from less than 10% of the car fleet. Simply applying current technology to exhaust systems on these offending vehicles would save hundreds of lives.

In May 2003, the Labour Government said it would introduce warrant of fitness testing on emissions, but in April 2005 it decided not to. The visual test has been treated with derision, and only 100 tickets per year are issued for excessive pollution. We have the slackest vehicle emission standards in the world and the Government deserves a black mark for not addressing it.

The Government has done little better on solid waste.

Just as with energy efficiency, the Government launched a fancy strategy in 2002 with more spin than a Fisher and Paykel washer. Fifteen of the 25 targets have not been met and have little hope of being met. Ratepayers are spending millions on feel-good recycling schemes only to find the waste is ending up in the land-fill because nobody can economically use the waste. The packaging accord, the second attempt at a voluntary agreement with industry, is having no impact as the volume of solid waste just keep growing.

The 7th black mark is for the complete lack of national leadership.

Another disaster area for Government policy is forestry.

During the 1990’s, New Zealand averaged 60,000 hectares of new forest plantings. It has dropped in each and every year under Labour. This data goes up until to 2004, and it is highly likely that the data for 2005 will show a net loss of forest area for the first time in 50 years.

Forestry has two major environmental benefits. It absorbs large volumes of carbon from the atmosphere, and it helps erosion. New Zealand has a massive problem with 800,000 hectares of highly eroding hill country. We saw it with Cyclone Bola in 1988 and in the 2005 Manawatu floods.

Part of the fall in forest plantings is economic, but Government policy is making it worse. The ridiculous Kyoto policies, where the Government is threatening to charge foresters who change land use after 2008, are a huge incentive to get out of the industry.

The Government must also take responsibility for failing to maintain the East Coast Forestry Project. This 33-year plan, initiated by National in 1993 to plant trees on this unstable country, needs to be kept going.

Labour deserves a black mark for abandoning this worthwhile environmental project.

A huge issue for New Zealand is management of our oceans. They are 16 times our land area. Simon Upton and myself initiated in 1999 the Oceans policy work to develop a far better framework for management of our oceans. The work has completely stalled. The Government has spent more than $6 million on glossy wishy-washy papers and concluded no more than that our oceans are blue and wide.

We do need to further develop our network of marine reserves, but the current Act is hopelessly out of date. A new Marine Reserves Bill was introduced in 2001 but has sat stagnating in the select committee for five years, and Labour has lost all will to progress it.

Meanwhile, we have seen gross incompetence in the management of fishing quota. Our most valuable species, Hoki, has had its quota first raised, against the advice of fishers, and then halved, with enormous economic implications for a region like Nelson.

Our ocean environment deserves better.

The last and probably most-felt environmental failure of this Government is Auckland’s traffic congestion. Every year Labour has been in office the problem has got worse.

Congestion is not just an inconvenience and an economic problem. It is a serious environmental issue. Congested traffic wastes millions of litres of increasingly scarce fuel. Idling engines produce far more pollutants.

Labour deserves a gigantic black mark for not only not solving Auckland’s transport problems – but for making it worse.

Having given Labour a pretty good working over on its environmental performance, some voters may be tempted to look to the Greens for redemption.

But the Greens are part of the problem – not part of the solution. The energy efficiency strategy that wasted $100 million of public money – and yet has reduced progress on energy efficiency – was a Green initiative from the first term of this Government. The Greens loudly boast that they killed project Aqua and the Dobson Hydro Scheme, but the end result is that Huntly is now burning more coal than ever to keep the lights on. And it is the Greens who have used their leverage with Labour to pass the most daft RMA and transport amendments that have made Auckland’s traffic congestion worse.

The Green Party are Watermelon greens – green on the outside but pinkos right through the middle. They dress up their anti-enterprise and big government agenda in green clothes because old-fashioned socialism is so out of vogue.

National’s Bluegreens was formed out of a belief that environmental issues were far too important to New Zealand to be left to the fringes of New Zealand politics.

In Britain, the Conservative Party under David Cameron’s leadership has launched a major environmental work programme as part of modernising and repositioning his party for victory.

In New Zealand it is even more important. 70% of our export income comes from our environmental competitive advantage – be it tourism, food, beverages or timber.

The Bluegreens are reinvigorated with a boast of talent and energy from the much-expanded new caucus. The board has approved the group as a policy interest group, a brochure is under way for distribution to electorates, the website is being rebuilt, and we will be writing to the 4,000 party members nationwide who have expressed an interest in environmental issues.

The most important challenge this year is producing a 30-page discussion paper similar to those produced in the last term on Education, Welfare and the Economy. We will be organising with electorates all over New Zealand public forums to discuss this blueprint for the environment. This work will cumulate into our Bluegreens Annual Forum at Maungatautari, in the Waikato, over the weekend of October 7th and 8th which you are all invited to.

Today I also want to give you a teaser of some of the ideas we will be exploring in that paper, but before I delve into some of the specifics, it is important that we get some coherence about National’s Bluegreen approach to New Zealand’s environmental challenges.

The first is the principle of sustainability. While we want to grow the economy, this cannot be from ruining natural resources for future generations.

The second is that we believe economic growth and improving the environment can – must – go hand in hand.

We believe in a science-based approach.

We want to engage with people over environmental challenges and provide the right incentives for change.

We also recognise the unique heritage and freedom we have to go catch a fish, climb a mountain and enjoy a picnic at the beach with minimal cost and regulation.

There are eight quite specific areas of policy in which we are exploring some new ideas.

The first is community conservation. Current public policy is that DOC is the one and only deliverer of nature conservation. We don’t think this approach gets the best value for the taxpayer, and there are also real risks in a monolithic entity being the sole conserver of our natural heritage.

There are some amazing private conservations trusts that could do so much more for conservation with a bit of taxpayer support. The idea is that government establishes a contestable fund to help communities take some ownership of the nature conservation challenge.

We are giving thought to some new national parks.

Half the population lives north of Taupo and miles from national parks. 11 of the 14 are in the South Island. There are two very strong candidates.

The first is the magnificent Kauri forests of Northland at Waipoua, which includes one of the wonders of the natural world – Tane Mahuta. There is no question this forest deserves National Park status and it should be on our agenda.

The second is an initiative of Paula Bennett in West Auckland. Her idea of a National Park in the Waitakeres is a far better proposition than the fuzzy bill being promoted by Bob Harvey.

We also should be bold enough to clean up our car fleet. New Zealand has the slackest emissions and noise control rules of any country in the Western world. It is madness that we allow thousands and thousands of perfectly good mufflers to be ripped of imported cars and replaced by wide-bore exhausts that are designed to be as noisy as possible.

We should also be upping the ante on emissions standards. 10% of the car fleet does more than 50% of the polluting. We also need to further push the oil companies on the sulphur content of diesel.

A big idea we should be thinking about is tradable water rights. We have got to develop a better mechanism for ensuring we efficiently allocate and use water. Australia, which has even greater pressures around water, is well down this road and is showing it provides far better incentives than the first-in first-served sort of system we have.

We also should be thinking about tradable emission permits around the whole challenge of climate change. It is the rational way in which you will start to give the right sort of incentives in a market economy to planting trees and using more renewable energy.

A major flaw in New Zealand’s environmental framework is that it is just too devolved. A country of just 4 million people cannot justify having 86 different sets of rules on protecting the environment.

On issues like solid waste, fresh water quality and contaminated sites we are making no progress and going backwards. This will continue unless there is some stronger direction from central government.

The consistent feedback I get from trans-Tasman businesses is that they would much rather have the EPA approach of each state of Australia than what we have in New Zealand. The devil is in the detail, but I believe we can get better economic and environmental outcomes from an EPA approach.

Last election we had a comprehensive RMA reform package. We must keep stating our commitment to this important work. However, we must also be careful to communicate that these reforms are not about lowering environmental standards but about reducing the cost, delays and uncertainty of the process.

A new area of work we must get our head around is compensation to landowners. Many of the debates around new infrastructure are driven as much by the inadequacy of compensation under the Public Works Act as by real environmental concerns.

We need to be the party of tough biosecurity laws. Every day, on average, 300 people are caught bringing in illegal goods that pose a biosecurity risk, and about 10 of them do so knowingly and deliberately. We are talking about many tonnes of fruit and meat of which just one item could devastate an industry.

We should be thinking about instantly deporting those who deliberately breach our biosecurity laws.

We also need to lift our act in responding quickly to incursions. So often, arguments over who should pay results in months of delay by which time it is too late. The idea of a biosecurity response fund similar to the flood relief fund needs to be considered.

A consistent part of National Party philosophy is to trust people to sensibly manage their own resources rather than relying on nanny state. That is why we are keen to give hunters a greater role in management of their game.

We also believe it is time recreational fishers had a far greater say in managing their resource. They should be part of the decision-making process of where marine reserves are created, how catches are allocated, and the fishing regulations.

There is lots of work to do to develop these ideas. We want your input. We want a Bluegreen agenda that will fit with National Party values, deliver for the environment, and help energise the public into trusting us with the stewardship of this precious country in 2008.

I am in no doubt that this great party of ours is up to this important challenge.


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