On Saturday the National Party began a debate the outcome of which its leader believes will redefine it.
The party is grappling with climate change.
Because of its strong rural base, and the possibility that any climate change solution will end up with agriculture being admitted to the Emissions Trading Scheme, the party has to tread very carefully.
That much was obvious at its annual Blue Greens Forum in Darfield over the weekend.
Speaker after speaker called for a balanced transition that didn’t penalise any particular sector and that did not damage the economy.
But the very fact that party members were talking about how, rather than whether, to go forward under the Emissions Trading Scheme is a breakthrough.
The former Environment Minister, Nick Smith, reminded the Forum of how in 2010 in Gore he had needed police protection to exit an angry farmers’ meeting protesting at the Emissions Trading Scheme.
“In the caucus and in the Cabinet there would not have been a majority to proceed with the ETS in July 2010 if it was not the fact that John Key and Bill English believed this was a long-term issue that we had to tackle,” he said.
“I will never forget the public meeting in 2010 in Gore with Eric Roy with over 500 people, most of the National Party members in that district, where I required 24 police officers to get me out of the meeting.”
Many of those caucus and Cabinet members from 2010 are still National MPs.
Against that background, the new Leader’s determination to proceed with a bipartisan approach to climate change is bold because the next phase will be much more difficult for National than introducing the ETS has been so far.
But it’s also pragmatic politics.
National is becoming convinced that MPs like Nikki Kaye are right when they say the party needs to target the urban vote and that that vote is highly influenced by environmental issues.
The party’s newest MP, the Wellington Central based Nicola Willis told the Forum that the average age in her electorate was 28 so she spent a lot of time campaigning with the under the 30s.
“They are very, very passionate about environmental issues,” she said.
“In fact, some of them would ask what was the purpose of being of politics and parliament if it was not about solving the big issues that we care about, like climate change.”
The Leader, Simon Bridges, seems to be responding to this.
He said Green Party Co-Leader, James Shaw, when he congratulated him on winning the leadership told him he had the opportunity to redefine the National Party for the future.
“I am sure he was sincere,” he said.
“Because that is esxactly 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.”
Bridges offered no detail on the changes he wants to see to climate change policy but said he was planning a major speech soon.
However he said sound environmental policies did not mean we had to sacrifice our economy.
“They require us to be more innovative, more imaginative and more inventive.
“New Zealanders have always trusted National on managing the economy.
“I want them to know that they can trust us to care about the environment as well.”
Bridges has charged Bay of Plenty MP, Todd Muller, with developing the new climate change policy.
It is an interesting choice; Muller was an Adams supporter in the leadership ballot, a fact that is all the more interesting because he and Bridges have neighbouring electorates so it might be assumed they are not the closest of friends.
Muller is also an ex Fonterra executive and has a background in agri-business yet he is close to the party’s most high profile liberal urban MP, Nikki Kaye.
He thus straddles the party’s divide.
He has already said he is willing to support James Shaw and his proposal for a bi-partisan climate change policy.
However, he made it clear to the Blue Greens that would not mean unconditional support.
He said National could not make any commitments until it saw the detailed legislation which the Government is proposing so at this stage it was only possible to say where the obvious points of convergence and divergence were.
“I think there is potential around their proposed climate commission,” he said.
“When they talk about a Climate Commission which sets budgets and which provides independent expert advice on the pace of change based on science. based on available technology, and, critically, competitive country performance and journey and speed of journey, then potentially that is something that is in alignment with we were heading.”
But he said a point of divergence was what he called “their prescriptive policy view” on where we need to get to, and how, and which industries needed to change, and how, and which industries needed to stop.
“In other words, the tendency thus far to pick winners and losers in the climate world based on their own particular ideological blindspots.”
Muller said the concern related to the new 2050 target of net zero emissions which could include all gases which would bring agriculture into the scheme.
The debate is over methane. The Productivity Commission’s report on Climate Change, published on Friday set out the stark statistics.
Nearly half (47.9%) of all New Zealand’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions come from agriculture and 35% are methane which comes largely (67%) from cattle.
But methane is a short-lived gas in contrast to Nitrous Oxide and Carbon Dioxide.
The Commission’s report suggests that an all gases target could differentiate between long and short-lived gases.
Muller fears there is a real threat to the dairy industry.
“They (the Government) don’t see a future which includes more dairy, in fact many of the current Government see a future which has less cows.”
Muller believes the Government should be allowing for new technology to solve some of the methane gas emission challenges. The Productivity Commission talked extensively about the possibility of a methane inhibiting vaccine for cattle.
But the uncertainty over methane – and therefore dairying — is a major challenge for National’s base.
The former President Of Federated Farmers, William Rolleston, asked whether the party should be looking at some sort of policy which separated the gases.
“In that case, you might be able to create incentives and also not punishment for land use change but incentives for land use change.”
Muller said the previous National Government had taken an all gases approach.
“But as Simon said, now is the time for us as a National Party to pause and reflect, and do a difficult job of identifying where you need to pivot change and refresh the position you have taken.”
“So that is part of what is on the table for the National Party.”
Northland dairy farmer, Grant McCallum, asked how the party would get the balance right between winning urban support and retaining its long-term farmer support.
“it is something that we are going to have to continue to work through both as a caucus and a party,” said Bridges.
“But I see us as a party of practical environmentalists.
“I take climate change very seriously.”
if there was a theme to the debate through the day it was that change needed to be agreed on a bi-partisan basis and that the pace of change would be important.
A contrary view came from veteran environmentalist, Guy Salmon, a usual attendee at Blue Greens Forums, who listed the international agreements on climate change which National had signed.
“In all of this time we have had obligations which we have done almost nothing about,” he said.
“By various tricks of the trade we suppressed the climate price, the carbon price in the ETS and created huge exemptions which also include Methanex. (the Taranaki methanol producer).
“National has been good at saying we want to tackle climate change but what they have been incredibly disappointing at is actually taking some steps to honour those commitments.”
The former Green MP, Kennedy Graham, was the chair of the all-party Parliamentary group, Globe, set up to develop a bi-partisan climate change policy.
His appearance at the Forum was controversial, but his message was that a bi partisan approach al;ong with a dialogue with “4.6 million New Zealanders” could work.
“There can be common ground on a basic consensus with respect for agreement on divergence and difference on points of detail, on everything including agriculture and oil exploration,” he said.
Graham said New Zealand could reach Labour’s net zero targets.
“But there is nothing more critical in getting there than a genuine cross-party dialogue,” he said.
That dialogue is unlikely to succeed if the question of methane and agriculture is not settled and if there is not support from farmers.
National will be critical concerning delivering the farmers.
That is going to give them some leverage in the dialogue, but at the same time it is likely that as a party they will have undergone substantial change at the same time.
One thing is abundantly clear; there is now no room for climate change deniers in National.