Is democracy for sale?

By Sophie Barclay

Photo: Ted BaghurstThese days the government are outlawing those protesting environmental causes at sea. What gives?
Photo: Ted BaghurstThese days the government are outlawing those protesting environmental causes at sea. What gives?

Community/politics: When Bunny McDiarmid, CEO of Greenpeace, was searching for supporters of the new 'Get Free' campaign, she didn't have to look for long. The voices of high-profile, well-respected New Zealanders including the chief executive of Les Mills International, Phillip Mills, actor Sam Neil and Lady Pippa Blake raised a call to action; arguing that democracy, climate change, pollution, deep sea oil drilling and our integrity as a nation are issues that everyone should feel strongly about.

Academic and writer Dr Ranginui Walker, DCNZM also supports the campaign. He worries for his 13 great-grandchildren when he thinks about the future. "I'm absolutely concerned about environmental degradation. It really is a huge problem that the world faces. We've done nothing but damage the planet as our population increases - and it's getting worse."

The 82-year-old, who hails from Te Whakatohea, also voices his concern for our country's legislative processes. Two years ago, a flotilla of ships protested against the presence of Brazilian oil giant Petrobras in the Raukumara basin.

And yet, recent amendments to legislation now outlaw protest in the deep sea, undermining the rights of individuals to express their dissatisfaction. "This is an example of the Government's continued response. It is completely committed to smoothing the pathway for corporates to make money."

Maria Tyrrell, whose father Captain Alan Tyrrell sailed against nuclear testing in Mururoa, says protesting at sea has been pivotal in the formation of our national identity. "There was a time when we sent naval frigates to protest French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Today we send our navy to protect foreign oil companies from peaceful protestors in our own waters."

Another professional chiming in on the campaign is oncologist and researcher Dr. George Laking, also of Whakatohea descent. He said there are three key parallels between the anti-nuclear cause and that of preventing offshore drilling; the format (both at sea on small boats); the immediate environmental risk to the local surroundings (radioactive contamination for nuclear, Deepwater Horizon-esque blowouts and Rena-like oil spills for drilling) and the possibility of an existential risk for civilisation (nuclear offered the potential for an Earth-obliterating exchange between the Cold War powers, and now we are faced with a six degree temperature rise if we continue to burn and extract fossil fuels).

Laking says that climate change will have a huge impact on human health. He cites a 2009 report led by acclaimed medical journal, The Lancet, which showed that climate change will affect water and food security and cause societal breakdowns, impact on vulnerable populations, create extreme climatic events and lead to the expansion of vector-borne diseases (spread by mosquitoes, for example). "It's the biggest global health threat of the 21st century."

If we continue to do nothing, warns Laking, the consequences will be dire. "Business as usual means that we are participating in the slow suicide of industrial civilisation."

Laking says the argument that New Zealand should not take a lead role against climate change due to our low carbon emissions does nothing but breed apathy. "All I can do is appeal to people to understand that, historically, seeing people do the right thing is a very strong impetus for change. That's how we take on board moral lessons; we observe what other people do, internalise that and realise it's the correct thing to do."

He acknowledges that because people's lives are now busier than ever, we need to support activists and campaigners. "What's happening off shore is out of sight, out of mind... but that's why it's very important to have a protest movement that draws people's attention to what's going on in the world right now."

It's not just our health at stake, it's our economy, says clean energy advocate and business leader Phillip Mills. He insists that the government is taking us on a path towards economic destruction. "They're compromising our good reputation that is at the heart of our economic success and our way of life." He emphasises that the correct path for New Zealand is one that embraces clean energy, "not the blind pursuit of peak oil."

Wise Response, a group launched in March 2013 in Otago, is another group voicing their concerns about "the links between global climate change, fossil fuel extraction and combustion and the economy."

The first 100 signatories to the appeal represent, again, a comprehensive sector of society; engineers, environmentalists, economists, writers, poets and teachers as well as notable New Zealanders like former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith, media personality Te Radar, Dame Anne Salmond, Oxfam's CEO Barry Coates and artist Grahame Sydney.

The group issued an appeal to government to assess risk levels across five keys areas; those of economic security, energy and climate security, business continuity, ecological security and genuine wellbeing. Appealing "in the name of all our children and grandchildren" they have called for unified, cross-party policies to address complex, contemporary issues such as how to move on from carbon-based energy sources, and how to address child poverty.

Members of the Labour party, the Greens and New Zealand First, attended the launch with apologies from the Maori Party and United Future. The Government has yet to engage with the group.

Emeritus Professor at Otago University, Sir Alan Mark, is one of the spokespeople for the group. He has been leading public meetings around the country, elaborating on the concerns of the group.

Fellow signatory to the appeal, distinguished professor Dame Anne Salmond, has also added the erosion of democracy to her list of concerns. She maintains that by ignoring the concerns of the public and rushing through controversial bills under urgency, the Government is behaving like a "playground bully.

Dame Anne has asserted that we all have a responsibility to hold Government to account. "Citizens who don't stand up and speak out when that happens are culpable, along with their leaders. As a small country with an informal constitution, we have too few checks and balances in our political system as it is. Every attack on those we do have makes a significant difference to democratic freedom in New Zealand."

And, said Dr. Laking, there's never been a better time to add your voice to the throng. "I think out Government has completely underestimated our moral weight. That's in the history books; the stance we took on nuclear weapons and the concerted effort, by a small group of people, to lead the way. We can do it again."

Church challenges fossil fuels
This month, the Auckland Diocese of the Anglican Church voted overwhelmingly in favour of divesting away from fossil fuel companies, becoming the first institutional body in New Zealand to join the global divestment movement.

This follows moves by major insurers and banks including Norway's €60 billion insurer and pension fund Storebrand, which recently divested from 13 coal and six oil companies due to its long term focus and the level of risk inherent in fossil fuel investment, and Dutch bank Rabobank, which excluded shale gas, oil sands and other "unconventional energy extraction projects" from its loans portfolio for social and environmental reasons.

POINTS OF CONTENTION:
Democracy:

Recent bills rushed through under urgency include: the controversial GCSB Bill, which the NZ Law Society called "flawed", stating that the legislation "should not proceed", and the Carers' Bill, which caps payments for family carers at 40 hours a week, prevents carers from taking their cases to court, and was pushed through in one day.
Changes are being made to legislation through Supplementary Order Papers (SOPs). SOPs can be introduced following a reading of the bill by the Select Committee. Changes made through an SOP do not legally require consultation or submissions. The Law Society has said they are "concerned about the use of the SOP procedure to introduce significant amendments to bills after completion of the select committee process."
The 'Anadarko Amendment' was changed via an SOP and will see individuals fined up to $50,000 or face jail time for protesting at sea or entering a new 500 metre 'exclusion zone' around drilling rigs and seismic vessels. The Amendment breaches international law including the right to free association, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Peter Williams, QC, said: "[this is] fascist legislation, this is shocking legislation, this is draconian legislation, and the people of New Zealand have got to be aware of it."
The Government also has changes planned for the Resource Management Act. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has criticised the changes saying that the RMA "is not, and should not become, an economic development act."
The Keep Our Assets coalition recently delivered enough signatures to Parliament to initiate a referendum on asset sales. Despite the nearly 400,000 signatures, asset sales are set to continue with 49% of Meridian Energy to go on sale October 29.

Climate change:

Several reports have stressed that we need to keep 80 per cent of all remaining fossil fuels in the ground to keep global warming below 2°C.
Last year, New Zealand dropped out of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol much to the dismay of our Pacific neighbours. Australia, and 36 other countries, signed up.
Our current greenhouse gas emissions target is for a 5% reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 - out of step with UK and EU commitments to reductions of 30% and 20% respectively.

Fossil fuels:

Sources of conventional oil and gas are becoming harder to find, prompting a turn to 'unconventional sources' such as oil sands and fracking.
An American study showed that the energy return on energy investment for oil and gas (describing the efficiency of the energy production process) "decreased exponentially from 1200:1 in 1919 to 5:1 in 2007".
Recently Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges announced the start of the process for next year's offer of blocks totalling 434,000 sq km for exploration.
This summer, Anadarko will drill an exploratory well off the coast of Otago at a minimum depth of 1100 metres. Drilling will also take place at Taranaki, in depths of up to 1500 metres.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill resulted from an exploratory well drilled at 1500 metres, and leaked 4.9 billion barrels into the Gulf of Mexico.
By February 2013, BP had picked up an estimated US $42.2 billion tab for the damage.
Exploratory wells do not require an Environmental Impact Assessment.
This month, plans were announced to open up 8000 sq.km of the Central Volcanic Zone for prospecting for petroleum and minerals. Included in this is Pureora Forest Park, which was saved by 'tree-sitting' conservationists in the 1970s, and is home to the rare North Island kokako and the last reminders of original podocarp forest. Before any drilling or extraction can take place more permits to explore and mine must be obtained. Mining is also ramping up in Northland.
An exploratory drilling permit has been issued to De Grey Mining Ltd for gold and silver at Puhipuhi, a former mercury mine. Previously, the mine created considerable water quality issues and pollution from its naturally occurring lead, mercury and arsenic deposits. The Puhipuhi Mining Action Group said they do not want the mining as it may cause contaminants to leach into waterways where it would affect farming and the harvesting of food.

Clean and green:

According to WWF NZ's recent publication 'Beyond Rio' water quality has consistently declined over the last two decades. 96 per cent of waterways are too polluted for us to swim in and two thirds of our native freshwater fish are in major decline.
Our clean and green image is integral to our $20 billion a year tourism industry and is responsible for around 70% of our export revenue.

It's your call:

Register your support for the call to action at getfree.org.nz
Sign the Wise Response appeal at wiseresponse.org.nz

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