Simon Bridges at the crucial Blue Greens Forum in Darfield in February, 2018 when he promised to redefine National.

National‘s decision last Thursday to vote for the Zero Carbon Bill is the end of a long process of debate within the party which points to a fundamental realignment of its policies and values.

Simon Bridges has both encouraged and endorsed that debate and its outcomes.

From numerous background conversations POLITIK .has had with Bridges over the last four years about climate change there is little doubt that the decision to back the Bill was the one he wanted.

He understands climate change (he is by nature a  bit of a nerd), and he was at the Paris Climate Change summit.

But more importantly, despite his own inherent social conservatism, he has allowed his party to begin to become an urban-based liberal party.

There was no better evidence of that than the speakers who National put up for the Zero Carbon Debate; Scott Simpson, Erica Stanford and Nicola Willis; all identified with the liberal wing of the party.

Judith Collins is not identified with that wing. In fact, she is the polar opposite. But she was there to maintain unity within the caucus, and Todd Muller, the architect of the bipartisan policy, is conservative on some social issues and liberal on others. 

Bridges chose to have Nikki Kaye, who he privately regards as almost too liberal, sitting alongside him during the debate.

The symbolism was obvious.

What National clearly said on Thursday was that this was the new National Party.

What seemed to be forgotten as the debate over the Bill unfolded was the role played by Bridges at the December 2015 Paris conference that developed the Paris Agreement which is the blueprint behind the world’s efforts to combat climate change.

As Associate Minister of Climate Change, he was at the conference.

It gave him a stake in the debate right from the get-go.

But a change like National’s has many fathers and three MPs played a crucial role; Nick Smith, Scott Simpson and Todd Muller.

Smith was one of the founders of the Blue Greens (with businessman Rob Fenwick and environmentalist Guy Salmon) in 1998. That “ginger” group within National was to play a crucial role in the development of the climate change policy.

Lord Deben, chair British Climate Change Commission

 In February 2017 they brought the chair of the British Climate Change Commission, Lord Deben,  to New Zealand to address their annual dinner at their forum in West Auckland.

The Blue Greens chair and National’s Environmental spokesperson, Scott Simpson, confirmed to Parliament last Thursday how vital that visit had been in forming National’s approach to climate change.

“When we had Lord Deben here, we looked at the UK model, and we thought about the benefits of an independent, science-based, informed, impartial expert panel to create a pathway towards a zero-carbon economy for New Zealand and New Zealanders,” he said.

“When we looked at the UK model, we were, I think, impressed to a person that the independence of that model had received almost unanimous support in their Parliament, and that the budgets that had been set by the United Kingdom climate committee were then being implemented by the elected politicians of the day.”

That central and independent role for the Climate Change Committee has been critical in developing National’s policy.

Two months after Deben’s visit, the Green MP, Kennedy Graham, chair of the New Zealand chapter of Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment  (BLOBE) produced a report from a British consultancy, Vivid, which argued that to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the second half the century “short-lived gases, of which methane is by far the most important, are not required to go to zero, as an ongoing steady flow leads to a stable atmospheric concentration.

“However, deep, sustained reductions in methane will still be required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

Simpson was a member of GLOBE and developed a close relationship with Graham through their work on the Vivid Report.

Todd Muller and Kennedy Graham at the crucial Blue Greens meeting last year in Darfield

In 2018 he would invite Graham to that year’s  Blue Greens Forum in Darfield. Bridges was also there; as was Muller and a variety of lobbyists ranging from Federated Farmers,  the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association to Greenpeace.

Bridges had been leader of the party for just over six weeks.

He told the Form that Green Party Co-Leader, James Shaw, when he congratulated him on winning the leadership said  he had the opportunity to redefine the National Party for the future.

“I am sure he was sincere,” he said.

“Because that is exactly what I  am planning to do; to define the National Party, our policies and our people for the future. A key part of that is our approach to environmental issues.”

Three things emerged from the forum; that National wanted an independent Climate Change Commission; that it wanted methane split from the other long-lived greenhouse gases and it wanted a bipartisan agreement.

That was confirmed four months later when Bridges made what is still the party’s defining speech on Climate Change to the Agriculture Field Days at Rukuhia in which he set out five principles that National would require to be met if it was to provide support to a Government Bill on Zero Carbon.

They were:

  • They wanted a pragmatic, science-based approach to tackling climate change.
  • Innovation and technology would be crucial to meeting any target.
  • The incentives needed to be right to drive long-term changes rather than imposing short-term shocks.
  • New Zealand must act, but never in isolation.
  • We must always consider the wider impacts on the economy – on jobs and incomes for New Zealanders.
Scott Simpson, chair of the Blue Greens, at the Forum in Raglan in February

The party’s climate change spokesperson, Todd Muller, took these principles to electorate meeting after electorate meeting around the country as he debated the issue with grassroots, National members.

Though there were pockets of dissent, the overall reception he got was positive.

That empowered him to negotiate directly with Climate Change Minister James Shaw.

Those negotiations were, by all accounts, going well until Shaw’s separate negotiations with NZ First Chief of Staff, Jon Johansson, broke down late last year.

There are varying descriptions of what happened, but the situation was so bad that the Prime Minister commissioned former chief of staff to Helen Clark, Heather Simpson,  to try and broker a peace.

The NZ First determination not to be seen to be supporting the Greens was to then become a major irritant in developing the bipartisan policy.

NZ First did not support the Greens proposal that the Climate Change Commission be totally independent.

And they seemed to place more emphasis on what was actually a minor sideshow, whether agriculture should go into the Emissions Trading Scheme next year, than anything else.

Industry lobbyists who were keeping in touch with Shaw and Muller were perplexed by the NZ First approach.

Nick Smith - one of the foudners of the Blue Greens

At the same time, last  October there was a dramatic intervention from the United Nations Inter-governmental Panel on  Climate Change which lowered the temperature rise required to reach net-zero from two to one point five degrees.

In their paper, they set out four scenarios to achieve this; one of which prescribed a 47% reduction in methane.

Shaw says he simply took the lowest of the paper’s methane reductions and the highest and included that range in the New Zealand Bill knowing that the Climate Change Commission could review them.

National did not know this until the Bill was introduced into Parliament on May 8.

But agricultural leaders and economists immediately said the 47 per cent reduction by 2050 would be unachievable without major dairy cow number reductions.

That would impose huge pressure on farmers’ bottom lines.

National was certainly unaware of it at the Blue Greens Forum in Raglan in February.

Smith warned that if National could not form a bipartisan agreement with the Government over climate change it risked being torn apart by it as the Australian Liberal Party had been.

“I would love this Blue Green forum, to give Simon (Bridges) and Todd (Muller) a clear message that our party is up to forming a bipartisan agreement on a climate change commission, and  I would like a steer from you, Todd, of how optimistic you are that we can get that climate change legislation into a form on  which National could take the very unusual step as an Opposition party to back it,” he said.

Muller responded by indicating he was confident agreement could be reached.

“When you see the final legislation, try not to see the singular thing that if you held the pen, you would not have put in,” he said.

“But instead helicopter back up and have a look at the principles that the National Party has stated here today and look for them to be echoed back to you.”

That seemed to set the stage.

Simon Bridges at this year's Blue Greens meeting

But then NZ First demanded that Shaw stop negotiating with National and talk only to Government parties. The Prime Minister apparently agreed with this approach.

Surprisingly NZ First agreed to the upper methane limit.

National did not know this because, in simple terms, Shaw had stopped talking to Muller.

He would apologise for that in his speech on the introduction of the Bill.

But the damage had been done.

There was now pressure from within National and from sections of the agriculture community for National to back away from the Bill.

This was revealed in a meeting some agriculture lobbyists had with Papakura MP Judith Collins in August when she “teared up” as she talked about helping her father farmer with milking on Waikato winter mornings and pledged she would vote against the Bill if the methane targets were not changed.

But at the same time, National (under Smith’s management)  had been conducting a “listening” exercise with its supporters and people who visited its website. People under 30 wanted a commitment to tackle climate change.

The party was picking up the same signals from its regular focus groups which were being closely monitored by Rotorua MP, Todd McClay.

The result was evident last Thursday.

Bridges stuck to the commitment he made to the Blue Greens last year and rejected those in the caucus and party who opposed an agreement.

In the process, though he is a social conservative himself, he has firmly branded his National Party as a forward-looking, more liberal party than it was even two years ago.

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