New Zealand’s carbon emissions bill

by | Jan 15, 2020

I’ve known about New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Emissions Bill for some time, as a Kiwi and as regular reader of New Zealand news. Across the Tasman, it’s old news. Agriculture is the biggest CO2 emitter there and, unlike Australia, the New Zealand government is taking radical action to address the problem, across a range of areas, investing a significant amount of money into scientific research into the feed that would mitigate or eliminate the methane cows emit as one example. They also, in 2018, banned all new off-shore oil drilling among other initiatives, initiatives which, sadly, appear to be anathema to this government, beholden as they are to the mining lobby and the aspirational middle-class, to wit an Aussie “daring do” missing from the political class.

New Zealand has a long history of progressive politics, stretching back to being the first nation to provide universal suffrage. Over 10 years ago New Zealand abolished live meat exports and, as a result, some luck, some planning and risk taking, have doubled their revenue from locally processed replacement products, yet here the same subject generates so much National Party hyperbole that it stops discussion about it dead in its tracks. “We will not put at jeopardy hard working primary producers” is the usual catch cry, forgetting that the world may have moved on, or at least be contemplating it, without stopping to consider the animal welfare issue, which is how New Zealand came to its decision, or as is likely the case regarding our coal mining industry and the considerable exports that go with it, the decision will be made for us, leaving us, unless we have contingencies, somewhat up the proverbial creek without a sports club government grant funded paddle. 

The New Zealand government is not hamstrung by anachronistic multi-tiered parliaments that we have inherited from our British colonial past and that we have decided not to fix, it serves the political class too well for that to happen. But above that the Kiwi mentality is different, their politics is not as mired in ideology as it is here, and which very sadly seems to have become more polarised over the past couple of decades. New Zealand’s approach to problem solving is to act, to look for new ways to do things, not in all cases but in many important ones, as a collective, which contrasts with the pre-eminent mantra in Australia of “aspirational individualism”.

Despite what Aussies might think, whilst in many ways we are the same, New Zealand is in these key respects significantly culturally different to Australia. I’ve heard the argument many times from Aussies that New Zealand can do these things because it’s smaller, both in population and geography, however, one can sustain these tropes for only as long as your own failure to act doesn’t directly affect you or that you’re not found out, after a while that trope becomes tiresome, in fact it’s more than tiresome, it’s an insult, a patronising and intellectually inept defence. It’s a “we punch above our weight” meme that is as good for the goose as it is for the gander. In other words, when our Prime Minister says that there is nothing we can do locally to influence climate change because we are but a small player on the world stage but then boasts about how we punch above our weight on the sporting field, or in military aid or conflict, or in foreign aid (which we do), or in some other field that he’d be quick to mention if it helped his narrative, then we show ourselves up somewhat.

Australia now finds that it has no more cards to play in that respect, it has a losing hand, the ship has come in, the horse has bolted, the metaphor has had the life wrung out of it. If you look at the response from Aussies as a community to the bushfires on the other hand, we’ve shown ourselves to be generous, brave, resilient and innovative people but for some reason, it’s not being seen in our politics. It also causes me to ponder how responsive we’d be if our Prime Minister could show a little contrition (which goes a long, long way) and humility, admit that he got it wrong and engaged the nation in some pitching in. We’ve shown we’re equipped for it. Of course we know this is not going to happen.

The Ardern government has introduced this legislation, in part, as a corollary to the “Well-Being Index” it introduced into its recent budget – the foundation of which is that a nation’s well being is best measured not by purely economic indicators but by other indicators being included in the calculation, such as homelessness, social inclusion, mental health (including suicide rates, which is a particular problem in the teenage population), poverty, education and work-life balance. Yet, they have a current account surplus with less per capita govt debt.

Admittedly, the idea of basing prosperity on factors outside a narrow economic, qualitative framework is very much an idea promoted from the progressive centre or left of politics, which with it brings, for some, the notion that neo-liberal trickle down economics has failed, or at least, for the moderate progressives, that quantitative measures are just as, if more important. It would be a difficult philosophy for conservatives to sustain because they might have to jettison some of their long held ideology. The concept of the well-being index, a World Health Organisation (WHO) accepted measure has been around for decades, a few countries practice it, notably some Scandinavian countries but if the idea was proffered in Australia I suspect there’d be considerable middle class blow-back, it did after-all, help to get ScoMo elected.

Aussies may be a bit more blasé about protecting our natural environment partly because most of us live in cities – we’re the most urbanised country in the world, based on UN figures, ironic given our geographic size. New Zealanders recognise the importance of protecting their natural environment because, if nothing else, tourism is far more crucial to their economy in purely GDP terms than it is to Australia, they’re not just protecting their environment, they’re protecting their economy – tourism is to New Zealand what mining is to Australia, with close to 4 million tourists visiting each year, it’s their iron ore and they do it particularly well. Both New Zealand and Australia have so much beauty when you get out of the cities – it’s a different kind of beauty in Australia but it’s just as beguiling, just as stunning, in a different way and just as wonderful – but part of the problem here is that a lot of it is so bloody far away.

I for one, long for a high-speed rail network in Australia – it would open up opportunities that we can’t imagine but the discussion gets bogged down inside budget mantras and internecine State v Federal folderol. The idea of nation building is clearly anathema to this government, which seems to adhere religiously to a privately funded mantra to replace government spending, whether this is based on a fear of failure or neo-liberal ideological dogma (letting the market decide) is open to question but this myopia can’t last, surely. Perhaps it will. I think that Aussies are ready for this type of commitment but it’s going to take a politician with the courage of his or her convictions, with a party to come in behind (“get in behind Blue, get in behind”) and with the ability to create the narrative around it to bring it to fruition.

We are innovative people, I’ve seen it particularly in the health care field of late, we have some of the best medical scientists in the world, there are none better but again, it’s not reflected in government, who argue, that, on the whole, they’re doing their job by propagating an innovative environment, however I would argue that this innovation happens despite, not because of our government(s). Unfortunately, most of this abrogation of responsibility is driven by ideology, placing responsibility onto the individual. Some initiatives from this government in the health care sector, to continue using it as a model, have been important but again, they’ve been dragged there as a result of innovative thinking by other countries. The $85M Proton Beam Therapy Centre being built in Adelaide is a good example, no doubt a great undertaking but built partly because cancer patients have been heading overseas for this proven treatment when they should be able to access this treatment here. It’s wonderful news but it shouldn’t take us this long.

New Zealand politics is not as ideologically hamstrung, partly due its electoral system that makes it much more difficult to gain an absolute majority, which makes narrow ideology harder to sustain. They also have guaranteed Maori representation, in addition to their treaty with Maori, which every Australian government sadly, has failed to establish here for our First Nation people. We are one of the most conservative societies on the planet (discuss) – hidden behind this narrative around the rugged outback pioneering spirit, which certainly is there but sometimes gets hijacked by the need, we are told, to protect our ‘standard of living’. What it will take to throw off this conservatism I do not know, probably some idea around a new way to live, who knows.

New Zealand is a far more progressive and liberal society as a whole, which makes progress much easier, their same-sex marriage legislation was passed years ago with minimal cost and rancour, yet here it was the subject of nuclear scale hand-wringing. Churches, not completely but for the most part, stay out of public discourse in New Zealand, which is not the case here. A careful reading of the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre is also worth mentioning, it goes to the subtle, yet divergent ways the government, if not the people, communicate the message of inclusion. In Australia, the political narrative goes something like this – “you are welcome in this country, if you meet the criteria to live in our country and integrate into our society and culture.” In other words – become one of us. (Discuss). If you compare that to the language of, particularly, Jacinda Ardern in the aftermath of this atrocity, which broadly reflects the Kiwi attitude, you might notice a subtle but nevertheless significant difference.

She said “we welcome people from all over the world here, they bring with them their culture and with that it makes us a better people.” It might also go some way to explaining why they seem to have fewer issues in accepting refugees. I’m referring to government here, not the people. It’s also worth throwing in Jacinda Ardern’s reply to Donald Trump when he asked her what the United States could do to help. Her reply? “Be kind to Muslims.” In other words – Stop Being a Racist. One can only imagine how he reacted. Can you imagine Scott Morrison saying this to the president of the United States? New Zealand regularly stands up to the United States, something we rarely do, yes, one could argue that they can always fall back on the ANZAC tradition, which may explain some of it but it doesn’t explain all of it, or even most of it.

Which is not to say everything is polite and agreeable, it’s not. The fact that they may not get some, maybe even most of these things right is beside the point, the main point is that they are prepared to try them. New Zealand has a general election later this year and whilst Jacinda Ardern is by no means a shoe-in, there are some areas in which the government has not delivered, for example, their wildly optimistic social housing promise is not close to being fulfilled, and there is the possibility that the Nationals will run a fear campaign because as we know fear generally attracts more votes than does hope but regardless of the result, her legacy will be a magnificent one.

Meanwhile, let’s decide which bushfire affected towns we’re going to visit with our empty eskies. Nominations are open.