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Dunne Speaks: Virtue Signalling at the UN

The gulf between the wonderful picture the government likes to paint on the world stage of New Zealand as a paragon of international environmental virtue and reality continues to widen.

According to the Prime Minister at this week’s United Nations Climate change meeting, New Zealand is leading the world in sustainable food production, and has done “so much in just two years” to transition the country towards a carbon-neutral economy, with the implicit promise of more to come.

It is a catchy theme on the international stage – the small, isolated country at the edge of the world, long critically dependent on agricultural production for its prosperity – that is nonetheless prepared to take the challenge of climate change head-on, and reorder its economy and society accordingly, not just in its own country, but in the wider Pacific region of which it is part as well. As a response to the bitter chiding by young Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thurnberg, of international leaders’ perceived collective inaction, it could not have been better pitched.

There was just one small problem with it, though, as indeed there is with much of this government’s narrative, here and abroad, about what it is doing. The bold and optimistic rhetoric is just not matched by the domestic reality. Whether it be housing and the development of Kiwibuild, or mental health, or making our communities safer, the chasm between what was promised and what has been delivered in this so-called “Year of Delivery” continues to yawn ever greater.

This is especially so in the area of environmental policy, climate change in particular. Indeed, the very day the Prime Minister was proclaiming so very boldly on the world stage, it became clear that her government’s overall climate change policy is running into difficulties, with the inclusion of agriculture in the Emissions Trading Scheme proving to be just as much of a stumbling block as it was for both the last two National-led and Labour-led governments. And as they both came to realise, an Emissions Trading Scheme without agriculture is only a partial scheme. Somehow, this government thought it possessed a superior skill that would enable it to solve all that, but now it finds itself in exactly the same position as its two predecessors who have wrestled with this same issue over the last twenty years.

The Prime Minister waxed lyrical in New York about the government’s freshwater policy, but again, the reality of achieving better quality standards is falling far short of the international impression being created. Nor is it even clear that the government will be able to make the progress it is seeking in this area, because of entrenched interests, and despite the relevant Minister’s cocky assertion “trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

And all the while, more reports come to hand of various species of native flora and fauna being threatened to extinction, coastal communities facing destruction because of rising sea levels, and our carbon emission levels continuing to rise. While these are all long-term trends that transcend the life of this government, there is, tellingly, no evidence to suggest that any of the steps it has taken “in just two years” have had any significant impact. It is one thing to parade virtue on the international stage, but something else to have to match it to domestic reality.

How much longer the government can get away with this game of two stories remains to be seen. In the absence of effective and decisive action, and any evidence of progress, it is going to become increasingly difficult to maintain the pretence. And if the National Party switches to full reverse mode on any hint of bipartisanship on climate change policy, as seems increasingly likely in the wake of its decision to embrace Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s successful climate change agnosticism in the recent election campaign, the rosy picture is going to look pretty tattered indeed.

Taking the moral ground on important international issues, the way the Prime Minister does, is a defensible position in its own right. It is something successive New Zealand governments have done on various issues over the years and been respected for. But to maintain any credibility for even the briefest period of time, there has to be more to it than just endless talk and promise. There must be accompanying discernible, effective action. That is, after all, what we elect governments for, something the current one is seeming increasingly incapable of grasping. For it, the endless earnest talking about something seems just as important as doing anything about it.

Eloquent, fine words are all very well, but their effectiveness rests ultimately on the credibility of the actions they give rise to. This government may learn the hard way that talk, endless talk, remains cheap. It is still the actions that count.

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