Fran O'Sullivan: Public want focus on cost of living, not ETS

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Prime Minister Helen Clark's threat to campaign on climate change if her Government can't get parliamentary support to pass the emissions trading scheme (ETS) legislation could well backfire.

A major online survey finds the public feels most of the Government's efforts are going into tackling climate change issues and supporting families and children. But what they want the policy makers to focus more attention on, is the hot-button issues like the cost of living, the health service and reducing crime.

The TNS Conversa survey indicates the fault lines at this year's election will be based on hip-pocket issues and the respective parties' plans to address them. A factor that was brought home strongly last week by the extent of spontaneous support for the truckies demonstrated by New Zealanders.

Unless Labour comes up with a policy package to ease the transitional pain, Clark would simply be signing her Government's death warrant if she campaigns strongly on a scheme that will clearly have major downside impacts for most New Zealanders.

The online survey demonstrates people are primarily concerned the ETS will result in even more price rises. They are worried about how the scheme will impact on the economy and businesses, the extent of job losses, the speed with which policy makers plan to implement the scheme and the possibility that taxpayers will end up carrying the costs.

This presents an enormous challenge to a Government which has yet to publish any proposals for easing the pain at household level.

Across the Tasman, Professor Ross Garnaut, who has just presented his landmark report on Australia's climate change challenge to Kevin Rudd, has warned that without bipartisan support the proposed Australian ETS could turn into a bit of mess.

Garnaut has recommended the Rudd Government should ensure that low-income households and trade-exposed industries be compensated for higher petrol and electricity costs that will be caused as polluters who can't meet greenhouse gas reduction targets are forced to buy carbon permits. Garnaut has also suggested Australia's agriculture industry should initially be left out of the proposed Australian ETS because of difficulties measuring agricultural emissions.

He wants the billions of dollars raised by pollution permit auctions fed back into the economy: Fifty per cent of ETS revenue to go to low-income households through tax cuts, 30 per cent to trade-exposed industries whose competitors do not have a carbon price and 20 per cent towards low-emissions technologies.

In New Zealand, businesses pushing for a similar approach have been denigrated by policy makers.

The New Zealand Institute for Economic Research (NZIER) commissioned the survey to gauge the extent of the general public's climate-change beliefs, their awareness of the ETS and other initiatives, the level of support for the scheme and what drives it, and where policy-makers should focus their efforts.

NZIER chief executive Brent Layton suggests that the Government-sponsored ETS legislation now in front of Parliament will not be sustainable if it skips through on a narrow margin.

Layton's contention is that irrespective of whether or not the legislation is passed before the upcoming general election, there will still be a need for more policy development in this area. The institute's view is that some key aspects of the policies captured in the current bill are "unsustainable", irrespective of the election outcome.

The detailed survey shows extraordinary ignorance by New Zealanders. It indicates only one-third of the country believes in climate change in the first place.

Only 13 per cent strongly support the ETS, with less than half the country aware of the scheme's existence until prompted by surveyors.

The institute is examining just what is the optimal design for a New Zealand emissions trading scheme. It will seeking funding from NZIER supporters at a meeting in Wellington on Tuesday to carry out the next steps.

- Herald on Sunday

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