In what is one of this year’s most unlikely political phenomena National MP Gerry Brownlee is emerging as a podcast star.
Brownlee has launched “The Backroom of Politics”, which so far has consisted of 20-minute chats with Golriz Ghahraman and Rod Carr.
That Gerry could be found in the same room as the often radical Ghahraman was astonishing enough but that their conversation was civil and constructive was even more of an eye-opener.
The same applied to Carr. He has been the subject of some vilification by some of Gerry’s National colleagues over the Climate Change Commission’s report on carbon budgets, but inside Gerry’s backroom, the pair sounded like a couple of old mates talking about rugby.
Brownlee told POLITIK he started the podcasts because of the way the media has changed.
“Ithink too many of the stories that are reported in the news are too short,” he said.
“They tend to go with a particular aspect of the story without all of the consideration that goes into any final political position.
“The days where you had long-form news stories seem to have gone.
“And I think people believe that they can get back to it by listening to podcasts.”
He has a point.
The days when Ian Fraser or Kim Hill conducted half-hour TV interviews are well and truly over.
Even the weekend TV political shows are shrinking their interviews.
Brownlee’s interviews are really more like low key debates.
His talk with Ghahraman covered EVs, renewable generation, roading and farming and greenhouse gases.
The pair differed, of course, on the details of all of those issues but not before Brownlee had spelled out his own views on climate change.
“National signed the Paris agreement,” he said.
“We support the Zero Carbon Act. “We supported the establishment of the Climate Change Commission, although I think it’s become more activist than advisory.
“And we support the 2050 zero-carbon target and the split price approach for methane.
“So there’s a lot of similarities there.
“It’s in the delivery of the right outcome that I think we start to see some difference of opinion.”
Brownlee is repeating National’s official position, but whether every member of the Caucus is these days as supportive is an open question, and whether the leader, Judith Collins, is as unequivocal in her support as Brownlee is also a real question.
In fact, Brownlee emerged as something of a greenie in the Podcast. He advocated an increase in renewable energy and pointed out that he had solar power on his own house.
“People want practical things that they can do that might change an emissions profile,” he said.
“You’ve got your deniers out there, that’s absolutely true, but no-one can ignore the sort of weather patterns that we are experiencing at the moment; the sort of merging of seasons that we’re seeing currently and I think the willingness of people to do things if they can easily do it, is not going to be all that far away from us.”
Ghahraman took a slightly different tack.
“I think the starting point for me always on climate change, as it does on inequality or any issue that we face as a community, including as a global community, is that we need governments to take a lead to present systemic solutions,” she said.
“So that doesn’t mean that we’re going to suddenly see climate change addressed with a subsidy on electric cars.
“But we need the government to start somewhere to help people across the board make better decisions.”
The pair agreed that EV subsidies were unlikely to make much impact on EV take-up, but while Brownlee thought other solutions should be found, Ghahraman thought it was worth persevering with the subsidies.
“The government is stepping in and saying we’re not going to have high emissions vehicles that might be cheaper, for example, but by and by, we will try and make lower emission vehicles like hybrids more affordable,” she said.
“They’re not going to be affordable to that many people, and that’s where my concern starts to come in.
“We do want to move to a place where we’re not burning fossil fuels for transport all day, every day.
“But are we doing enough to help people access vehicles?”
Brownlee pursued the take-up of EV vehicles in his next Podcast with Climate Change Commission Chair Dr Rodd Carr.
Perhaps Brownlee’s quest for “practical things” that people could do to change their emissions profile had an impact on Carr, who conceded that it wouldn’t be necessary for everyone to drive an EV for the climate change targets to be met.
“Not everybody will be able to or will want to or will be able to afford to jump to a pure electric car,” he said.
“But plug-in hybrids and low emissions vehicles are options that will help reduce New Zealand’s transport emissions.”
Brownlee was supportive of this flexibility, pointing out that he himself had a 1000 cc SUV, which was very economical, but because it was a turbo, it was capable of towing a trailer or boat.
The unexpected pragmatism that seemed to have crept into Carr’s thinking continued when the pair got onto energy supply; something of a favourite theme of Brownlee’s.
He wanted to know what would happen if the Tiwai Point smelter, which consumes 12 per cent of all New Zealand’s power generation, did not close down as is forecast in the Commission’s report.
“We assume that that power is made available to all New Zealanders after 2020,” agreed Carr.
“But we also run a scenario where it’s not, and it’s not available for one of two reasons, either Tiwai stays, or that power is blocked, sold, for example, to make hydrogen for Japan.
“The consequence of that is that it is likely that the wholesale price of electricity will be about twenty dollars a megawatt hour higher than it would otherwise be.”
Carr said that, even so, it would have little impact on EVs because they were already considerably cheaper to run than petrol cars.
And there still be non-renewable energy being used even in 2050.
“Our future to decarbonisation is through alternative sources of energy,” he said.
“One major one is the electrification of low and medium temperature processes and ground transportation.
“And that electrification requires predominantly, but in the Commission’s view, it doesn’t have to be exclusively renewable energy.
“So even out in 2050 in our demonstration pathway, there is still coal being used in steelmaking in New Zealand, and there is still fossil gas being used in the system.”
Brownlee sounded impressed.
“It does point to the fact that our energy policy if you like, our energy planning does need to be a little bit better, a lot more long term than it appears to be at the moment,” he said.
His podcasts are a far cry from Question Time or the Wednesday Debate in Parliament, where he seems at home with his often confrontational, sometimes bombastic debating style.
But he appears to suggest that that may be theatre.
“The debates that occur inside parliament are at the very end of a process usually,” he said.
“And if sometimes they are very robust; but they are generally respectful, but they can be robust, and it can create the impression that there is a massive division over any particular issue.
“Quite often a different vote would be cast because of aspects of the particular law or initiative that’s being proposed.
“And I think a better understanding of that is something that would be useful.”
He plans to broaden out his topics beyond climate change – though he will interview National’s spokesperson, Stuart Smith – but he will move on to housing, and he is also planning one Podcast on his own Autonomous Sanctions Bill.
For that, he will interview Bill Browder, an American financier who got forced out of Russia and whose lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested and died in jail.
In 2017 Canada enacted its Magnitsky Act, which permits the freezing of assets and the suspension of visas when officials from Russia and other nations are found to be guilty of human rights violations; Brownlee’s Bill would be similar and would be global in scope.
His Podcast partner, Ghahraman, who is the Greens foreign affairs spokesperson, however, is opposed.
But as the Podcast showed, she and Brownlee agree on a great deal.
”She’s just one of those people that has a different perspective on a lot of things,” he said.
“It’s not always a typically Green Party, but then again, I think the days of stereotyping politicians, according to the left and right dictums, is long gone as well.
“And so I just felt that it would be something that would show that though we’ve got two parties that might, on the face of it, seem diametrically opposed, there is also a lot of similarity between them in understanding what our problems are.”
Perhaps a real test of Brownlee’s newfound enthusiasm for bipartisan politics would be if he did a Podcast with his usual daily sparring partner, the Speaker, Trevor Mallard.
That might test the proposition that though politicians might seem diametrically opposed, they really held a lot of similar views.