In her most revealing speech as National Party leader, Judith Collins, appears to be setting the party against a whole list of current Government environmental objectives.
She indicated this in her keynote speech to her party’s Blue Greens Forum on Saturday in Masterton.
The Forum would have been unfamiliar territory to Collins; it is the home of the party’s liberals and unlike her two predecessors, Simon Bridges and Todd Muller, she has not turned up in the past.
The liberal faction within National’s caucus have always regarded her with some scepticism, particularly on environmental matters like climate change.
And she did nothing to disabuse them of that scepticism.
She made it clear she wants a much bluer tinge to the party’s environmental policies.
The most significant policy position she unveiled was what amounted to an extensive rejection of the Climate Change Commission’s proposed carbon budgets.
These focussed on two areas; the dairy industry and industry, more generally.
“Should we reduce our dairy herd by 15 per cent so we can achieve a climate change target – even if it means global emissions increase because less efficient producers elsewhere fill the void in market demand?” she said.
“Even if this is actually at odds with the Paris Agreement, which says low greenhouse gas development should occur in a manner that doesn’t reduce food production?”
Climate change spokesperson, Stuart Smith, told POLITIK this meant the party would not support any move to lower dairy stock numbers.
The Commission proposed that dairy and sheep and beef animal numbers each reduced by around 15% from 2018 levels by 2030.
“This compares with an 8-10% reduction projected under current policies,” their proposal said.
“In this, we have included transforming a small amount of dairyland into horticulture, at a rate of 2,000 hectares per year from 2025.”
But Collins’ hardest line was on gas and industry.
“We won’t force New Zealand industries to scale back if it’s going to increase global emissions,” she said.
“We won’t ban oil and gas exploration if that means we end up using more coal.”
Smith told POLITIK that meant that the party wanted to see both the Waiuku steel mill and the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter stay in production.
The difficulty with that is that the Climate Change Commission has predicated its projected fall in wholesale electricity prices on the Tiwai Point smelter closing by 2026.
Otherwise, electricity companies would have to commit substantial capital sums to increase generation to meet new demands from other electrified industries and the transport fleet.
National favours the electrification of the car fleet, and Botany MP, Christopher Luxon told the Forum that he believed the Government’s current electric vehicle policies did not go far enough.
Smith said National believed gas would need to play an ongoing role both as a source of electricity generation and also as a direct energy supplier to industry.
But he recognises that would only partly fill the gap and says New Zealand must get access to international carbon credits to offset emissions here.
“Climate change is a global issue,” he said.
“So it doesn’t matter where the credits come from.”
What emerged from the Forum was that unless the Commission or the Government makes substantial changes in its carbon budgets, the Government is unlikely to get bipartisan support for its National Adaptation Plan, which is to be promulgated before the end of the year.
But Collins did not stop at climate change.
She was sharply critical of the proposal from Environment Minister David Parker to produce a National Freshwater Policy Standard.
Sadly, water quality in New Zealand has become a political football, pitting rural and urban folk against each, rather than a pragmatic conversation,” she said.
“Having a national bottom line for something like nitrogen doesn’t really make sense when every river in the country has a different ability to handle nitrogen.
“Does anyone really expect streams in Auckland to have the same water quality as streams in Fiordland?
“Every stream, river, and lake has different cultural, environmental, biodiversity, economic and social values.
“As David Parker found out, making every stream pristine would cost our cities tens of billions and end our horticulture areas.
“National will come to the next election with a more nuanced framework for water quality standards.”
Collins is likely to get substantial support from farmers, and also a number of local authorities around the country who have all been critical of Parker’s one size fits all approach to freshwater.
But what will be much more controversial will be her rejection of any concept of Maori rights with respect to water.
The Waitangi Tribunal in 2012 found that Māori had rights and interests in water bodies for which the closest cultural equivalent in 1840 was ownership rights, “and that such rights were confirmed, guaranteed and protected by the Treaty of Waitangi.’
Successive governments have avoided implementing the finding, but pressure is currently on the Labour Government from Te Kahui Wai, the Maori advisory group appointed by Parker to advise on his freshwater reforms to deal with water allocation.
Collins has now confirmed that National opposes this.
“This term, Labour will find itself split down the middle with it Māori caucus making demands for ownership of water, and for a Sealord-type deal on nutrient allocation,” she said.
“National will always maintain a position that water belongs to everyone but is owned by no one.”
And Collins has hardened up National’s position on Resource Management Act reform, and she has confirmed that her party opposes the proposals put forward last month by Parker for a Natural and Built Environments Act and a Spatial Planning Act.
Instead, Collins said National would prefer and Environmental Standards Act, setting clear and efficient environmental bottom lines; and an Urban Planning and Development Act, making it easier to build houses in our cities.
“I believe this approach would ensure our natural spaces are well protected while also making sure we have a positive process for building houses in already developed areas,” she said.
“My concern is that Labour is heading down the wrong path with its reforms.”
In some ways, that sentence sums up most of Collins’ speech on Saturday; it was an Opposition speech.