That old environmental political warhorse Nick Smith put MP Chris Bishop in his place at the National Party’s Blue Greens Forum on Saturday.
Bishop, the party’s RMA spokesperson, had launched a comprehensive critique of the resource management law bills currently before the Environment Committee.
“We are deeply sceptical that the reforms represent a substantive way forward,” he said.
Ultimately, Bishop said he could not say what the party’s position would be when the legislation came out of the Select Committee and returned to the Chamber for substantive votes.
Smith took a different view.
“My challenge to the national caucus team is this,” he said.
“It is my view that it is time the resource management act was replaced, and a lot of work has gone into its replacement.
“It’s not all bad.”
Smith argued that National should do what the Bolger Government did in 1991 with Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s original Resource Management Bill (which the 1984 – 90 Labour Government had introduced but not passed).
National reviewed the legislation, amended it and went on to pass it.
Smith said he supported the separation of the Spatial Planning Act because it provided an “elegant solution” to the tension between development and the need for environmental protection.
He was also supportive of the reduction in the number of district plans (down from over 100 to 15) and of the incorporation of the fast-track consenting process in the Bill.
But he was critical of the balance between central and local government and of what he called “fuzziness” in some parts of the Bill. That was echoed by the Environmental Defence Society CEO, Gary Taylor, who said the purpose and outcomes sections of the Bill were a “hodge-podge” of statements.
Both Smith and Bishop were critical of the lack of coordination between the Bill and the current review of local government.
However the message was clear; Smith wanted National to continue supporting the overall direction of the resource management reforms.
But in some senses, the RMA reforms were a sideshow at the Forum, as was the showpiece announcement by Leader Chris Luxon of the party’s Three Waters policy.
Instead, The day was dominated by various discussions about farmers and agriculture and the environment.
There the Forum was on much firmer ground with a virtual who’s who of environmentalism and agriculture from outside the party all contributing to the debate.
Underlying this was an acknowledgement that climate change was now here and that New Zealand needed to not only adapt but also mitigate.
Luxon was emphatic that climate change was real, needed a bipartisan approach and that New Zealand needed to play a role internationally on mitigation.
His comments addressed the right-wing columnist Matthew Hooton, who argued on Friday that New Zealand’s climate change reductions were inconsequential in international terms.
“I want to say clearly and unequivocally that National is committed to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, including net zero by 2050, and the Paris Climate Agreement Is not a dispute for us.,” he said.
“Our country has always tried to be a good global citizen, and meeting those emissions reduction commitments is just one way of demonstrating our willingness to play our part in global efforts, and if each country does the same, global challenges can be met as difficult as they are.
“And in this uncertain world, that message is almost as important as the emissions reductions themselves because the world needs hope and direction.
“And I think that New Zealand can demonstrate by its own results. and by encouraging others that the goal of limiting the impact of climate change is doable as hard as it is if countries commit themselves to do it.”
Deputy Leader Nicola Willis, in her address, took up the same theme conceding there had been some recent discussion on whether we needed to choose between mitigation and adaption. She said we needed to do both.
“I say that not just because of what I believe is the moral imperative for us to do our best to reduce our carbon emissions, but also, frankly, because of the trade imperative and I believe for our exporters’ businesses, for our ability to work with our security partners from a foreign affairs security perspective; we need to do our bit,” she said.
“We need to, frankly, live in a rules-based global order, and that means doing what we said we would do in our national (emissions) declarations. “
In contrast, Luxon’s Three Waters announcement was hard to get a fix on.
In one way, it was simply a revamp of the status quo, with Councils left on their own to find the funding to upgrade their three waters infrastructure.
However, he also conceded the central argument against this; that they had failed to maintain their three waters assets and instead siphoned water revenue off to other uses.
So to stop that, he proposed giving Wellington more powers to regulate Councils and water rates.
National would establish a new Water Infrastructure Regulator within the Commerce Commission.
“It will be responsible for overseeing the fair pricing and charging of water services, just like the Commerce Commission does now for broadband and electricity,” he said.
“The Minister for Local Government will sign off councils’ proposals after receiving advice from the Water Infrastructure Regulator that councils’ plans will be financially sustainable.
“The regulator won’t require councils to follow a particular mechanism.
“It will focus on the outcomes.
“So long as councils’ plans meet water quality standards, comply with rules for investment in infrastructure and show they will be financially sustainable, they’ll be approved.”
Whether anti-three waters protesters like Groundswell would accept that their local Council must seek approval from a Wellington bureaucracy and a Cabinet Minister for any three waters actions remains to be seen.
Though Luxon and Scott Simpson and Todd Muller, the key players in National’s climate change and agriculture policy development, firmly reject the extremism of Groundswell, some of the protest organisation’s ideas are beginning to creep into the party.
Suze Redmayne, the National candidate for the safe Rangitikei seat, echoed Groundswell when she told the Forum that as a farmer, she felt farming was a swear word.
“For too long, this government has systematically perpetuated a rural-urban divide,” she said.
But a panel of agricultural leaders was much more positive though they did complain that farmers were feeling over-burdened with reforms and paperwork.
One, Golden Bay dairy farmer and Federated Farmers vice president, Wayne Langford, talked of his own response to what he said had been a pretty rough depression episode six or seven years ago.
He and his wife decided they would therefore do something positive every day. They set up the “Meat the Need” charity which has farmers deliver mince from slaughtered cattle to homeless shelters.
And he recruited a panel of local Golden Bay people to regularly come on to his farm and check out how he was meeting environmental standards.
But he found his panel had a real commitment to the environment and wanted to do more than simply comment.
“If you get lucky, you get enough time to do one project, maybe two a year,” he said.
“But when you have a group of people come along, and you just open up your farm and say hey, have a go, do what you want to do, see what you want to do you end up with a dozen or 14 projects all on the go at once and you just watch the farm take off.
“I know the farming community feels this big time; that I can just talk till I’m blue in the face about farming, but why don’t people understand me, and why don’t they hear what I’m saying and what’s going on.
“But when my panel heads out into the community here, and the panel talks about what’s going on the farm, about the difference the fertiliser makes to the soil or the plantings make to the waterways, the community lights up, and they hear it.
“And it has been fantastic to see what that form of communication can do. “
National’s Agriculture spokesperson, Todd Muller, was another to talk about the pressure on farmers, particularly the impact of what he called the tsunami of regulations produced as a consequence of domestic and international expectations of farmers and the environment.
Muller warned that the events of the past three weeks would have a huge long-term impact on farming.
“The events of the last three weeks will change some of the perspectives we have as leaders both in the agriculture context and the environmental context,” he said.
“This is hugely challenging because the scale of these events means that business as usual will change.”
DairyNZ CEO, Tim Mackle, told the Forum that life had been tough for farmers over the past few years; there had been “too much too quick” on many fronts.
But he warned against slowing down.
“Actually, uncertainty for farmers is not a good thing,” he said.
“So maybe it’s more about sequencing and having smart, sensible sequencing and to work through things to get that policy right and have a masterplan where all the pieces fit together because, for farmers, I don’t think they see it and fair enough too.”
The Forum invited a number of guest speakers from environmental non-governmental organisations. Perhaps one of the more surprising to find at a National Party event was the former Greens co-leader and now Greenpeace CEO, Russel Norman.
Norman posed a fundamental philosophical question to the Forum, which went to the heart of National’s political ideology.
“What does it mean to be a conservative?” he asked.
“Does it mean you should be conservative about protecting the habitability of planet Earth, which means drastically cutting greenhouse gases, or does it mean being conservative about protecting the economic status quo to business as usual, which means the end of the stable climate which we all entirely depend on in?”
Norman said he would be conservative on climate and biodiversity.
“Except that means some really big things that are going to have to change, and there’s going to be a whole bunch of people that will not like it.
“But that is the price.”
The Blue Greens are a faction within National. They may not even be a majority; certainly, there was only a handful of MPs at the Forum and only three new candidates.
But even so, the speeches from both Luxon and Willis were important in that they signalled that the party is committed to the bi-partisan Zero Carbon policy.
That puts National closer to Labour than ACT on climate change and marks a fundamental shift in New Zealand politics.