Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Cunliffe denies Labour's the 'No' party: 'We're pro-growth'

Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Labour Party leader David Cunliffe sent me a text on Wednesday night stating simply: "We oppose it."

He was responding to a question about the proposed 30km Milford Monorail - a $200 million private sector proposal that Conservation Minister Nick Smith is contemplating.

The message stood out for its simplicity. Among a raft of projects put to him several hours earlier to gauge Labour's support, it was the only one that was effectively a simple Yes or No.

Most of Labour's positions on big projects being promoted unabashedly by National as jobs and wealth creators are heavily nuanced or have a set of conditions attached to them.

It leaves Labour looking as though it opposes everything and is positioning itself closer to the Greens along the spectrum that starts with unbridled economic development and ends with disturbing nothing in the environment.

And that is something that Prime Minister John Key and Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce exploit at every opportunity.

"For both Labour and the Greens there's an issue of preservationist instinct," says Joyce. "[They say] 'We want to save everything that is already there no matter how much the world has changed and we want to stop anything new coming because it upsets people'."

That was a significant contrast to National "because the public knows we are very focused on exploring all the economic opportunities".

"Every time you do say 'no', you give up job opportunities and quite a few people on the left try and ignore that. They don't make the connection between causes and effect."

So what are Labour's positions on some of the big proposals on the table at present? First, Anadarko's deep-water exploration proposal in Pegasus Basin, off the coast of Wellington and Kaikoura, the one that Energy Minister Simon Bridges backed so aggressively on Campbell Live recently. Cunliffe's position was that Labour would potentially support it if it met best-practice and environmental and clean-up standards but it doesn't yet.

Then there is the proposed $265 million Ruataniwha irrigation scheme in Hawkes Bay to be funded partly by Government and partly by private investment.

"It needs a proper process to get to a good answer. We are saying the process is wrong. We do support better water storage and management in our East Coast areas ... The question is how would you know because all of the relevant information has not been put on the table so it is unlikely a good decision can be reached."

Labour's position on Bathurst Resources' mining of the Denniston Plateau on the West Coast is simple and more in line with National's than the Greens. Labour was happy to let the decision go through the usual channels and then respect the final decision - the Environment Court gave Bathurst the green light last month.

Local West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor has no qualms about supporting the proposal. "It has been through a prolonged and agonising process through the courts, Environment Court, and it deserves to proceed given that extreme level of scrutiny."

Cunliffe rejects the suggestion his party is the No party. Just because he said "no", or criticised the process or said more information was needed, did not make Labour anti-development.

"We are not. We are a pro-growth party. We want more good jobs. We are very happy to see business succeed."

Cunliffe will use his speech to the Labour Party conference in Christchurch tomorrow to set out his vision of how the economy should produce jobs.

"It's certainly true that in general, Labour will occupy a position that is likely to be between National and the Greens.

"We do balance jobs and economic growth on the one hand with the need for sustainable environmental management on the other. What we really want is a structural shift in the economy."

His speech would be about how to take New Zealand from a volume-based primary production or extraction emphasis to a value-based technology-driven emphasis. "It's a different curve, not just a different place on the curve."

Green party co-leader Russel Norman objects to the framing of the question of whether Labour is moving closer to the Greens.

He has just returned from a visit to the OECD in Paris where he said even the Secretary-General of the OECD, Angel Gurria, said that net emissions from burning fossil fuels had to reduce to zero by the second half of the 21st century.

"So when you have economic development agencies like the OECD saying we have to head off in a green direction, the contrast isn't between economic development or not economic development, the contrast is between green economic development and out-of-control climate change," Norman says.

"So the question is how are we going to transition our economy to a sustainable basis, not, 'Are we going to have jobs or save the environment?' - which is National's framing of it."

The Greens were interested in diversifying the economy and adding value to agriculture, fishing and forestry.

"We are interested in all the things National refuses to do, with their focus on a few crazy projects, because if you are going to have a diverse and sophisticated economy, you can't just be about mining and casinos and motorways."

If Cunliffe is accused of getting too close to the Greens, he has a ready-made insurance policy in Shane Jones, the party's strongest Green critic and the closest the party has to a "drill, baby, drill" spokesman.

As he toured the regions in the Labour leadership contest, he stood in contrast to Cunliffe and Robertson, who took a less gung-ho position on economic development and free trade.

When the contest was over, however, Cunliffe made Jones his economic development spokesman.

"We are the Labour Party and the essence of Labour means work, and work comes from industry and industry comes from investment," says Jones.

Every year, the $9 billion or $10 billion current account deficit showed how much New Zealand was short of investment. "I thoroughly believe we have got to embrace inward investment and if you want industry and jobs, you can't be too picky where you find it."

Labour's caucus is a veritable broad church and Jones shares the caucus with environmental advocates such as conservation spokeswoman Ruth Dyson, environment spokeswoman Moana Mackey and former environment spokeswoman Maryan Street.

Cunliffe does not dispute that his caucus encompasses a broad range of views but he disputes any suggestion that the party is at a crossroad when it comes to economic development and environmental concerns.

"We have always sought to get an appropriate balance between sustainability and development objectives and what we really seek is a strategic shift of our economy towards a higher-value, more sustainable form of production: more renewable energy, lower carbon, higher technology, higher value, higher wages, higher profit."

- NZ Herald

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