Why is National Party leader Christopher Luxon trying to outflank Act and New Zealand First on the right? For every vote he might gain there, how many will he lose in the middle?
Luxon talked tough about boot camps last week and then doubled down at the weekend, calling wraparound care services “kumbaya”. It’s a word he’s nicked from former leader Simon Bridges, who used it whenever he wanted to poke a stick at liberals.
The problem with this is not just that boot camps have a poor track record. It’s that “kumbaya” is an attack on social investment. That’s the Bill English plan to identify at-risk kids while they’re very young and provide them with the services they need to thrive in society, rather than end up in prison.
Social investment is a comprehensive wraparound service programme but, for the sake of an easy slogan, Luxon has just casually trashed it.
With the United Nations’ COP27 climate conference now over, his views on climate change also stand exposed.
National sent climate-change spokesman Scott Simpson to COP this year and he repeatedly reaffirmed the party’s commitment to limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
But National doesn’t have a single policy to help achieve this. It’s opposed to the clean-car discount and its roading policy will encourage people to drive more often. It wants to restart oil and gas exploration and weaken the Zero Carbon Act and it really doesn’t like the Government’s farm-emissions proposals.
Luxon himself has revealed a weakness for fantastical thinking. This month he speculated about “using the ocean as a massive carbon sink ... if we change the way we count it”. The main flaw in this is not related to the science: Seaweed, plankton and other sea life already sequester carbon. That could be scaled up with aquaculture, although probably not to the degree Luxon imagines.
The flaw is that you can’t eliminate a real-world problem with accountancy. The aim is to reduce emissions, not hide them in a spreadsheet. You’d think a businessman would know that.
Luxon displays similarly fantastical thinking with his faith in the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). It’s true that a fully unleashed market could eliminate carbon emissions, but only if fossil fuels were priced to fully account for the damage they do.
That would make petrol too expensive for anyone to buy – which is, I’m pretty confident, not going to become the policy of any party, anywhere, ever.
There are other problems with relying on the market to manage emissions. One of them is highlighted in a report from Beef+Lamb NZ, which reveals farmers can get an annual return of $400 per hectare for trees, but only about $65/ha for meat production.
Because of this disparity, Beef+Lamb says more than 175,000ha of land has been sold for whole-farm conversion to forestry since 2017. Part-farm conversions will have pushed the total much higher.
How much rural land in this country do we want converted to forestry? And how much of that should be exotic monocultural plantations, instead of indigenous bush?
These are social and political questions, as well as economic and environmental, and we should not be relying on the ETS for the best answers. When the farms in an area become forests, work dries up, the local population falls and the towns die.
What should we be doing about that?
National doesn’t have an answer. Instead, it joins with Act and NZ First to rant about the “ute tax” and the “fart tax” and how unfair to farmers everything is.
But the battle for rural votes doesn’t have to be fought in the trenches of Groundswell grievance. Where are the business smarts National is so famous for?
As everyone who has run an airline knows, every large and middle-sized company in this country is working hard to manage the impact of climate change on its supply chains and its markets. They’re looking hard at their own emissions, too.
Businesses that don’t position themselves to operate in a low-emissions, climate-conscious world will lose their customers, their suppliers and their social licence to trade, and they know it.
Shouldn’t rural society and the rural economy be managed in the same way? If so, the role of political parties that claim to speak for rural New Zealand is vital.
So where’s National’s strategy to lead the rural sector into a prosperous, low-emissions future?
What would that even look like? I’m glad you asked.
In addition to emissions being taxed, there would be an incentives programme to help farmers convert to low-emissions farm practices.
It would include a plan to help with bank debt. This is the biggest problem for many farmers: How do you transition to new ways of doing things when the only way to make your payments is to keep doing things the old way?
There would be incentives to help small towns survive, articulated in a vision for the future of rural New Zealand. This would include viable employment opportunities as well as low-emissions land use and environmental restoration.
It’s not just the vast potential for environmental work that beckons. With a faster rollout of decent broadband, improved rail connections and decent housing programmes, many companies and industries could prosper too.
Such a plan would not pretend the farm sector can forget about climate change. Encouraging the idea that everyone is already doing enough is delusional. So is an idea prevalent in the Groundswell complaints: That because farmers produce our food they’re somehow immune from responsibility.
Farmers produce food for export and we eat a bit of it. They produce half the country’s emissions. Reducing methane emissions – which in New Zealand come overwhelmingly from belching animals – is one of the most effective ways available to impact global warming.
He Waka Eke Noa is true: We are all in this together.
A good plan for rural emissions would be guided by the science, particularly as summarised by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and our own Climate Change Commission.
And it would seek bipartisan accord. Luxon would stop looking for a way to say no, and start helping his supporters understand why the answer has to be yes.
Because in difficult times, that’s the most important role of a political leader: To help people understand why we need to change what we do.
One more thing: a rural strategy would also involve excellent mental health services. To his enormous credit, National MP Matt Doocey has long championed this. That’s something they’re getting right.
COP27 in Egypt has finished and largely failed. It’s not the end of the world, boom boom, but we’re a bit closer to that now. To limit warming to 1.5C, global emissions have to fall 45 per cent in the next eight years.
National says it’s committed to the goal. So does Labour. Neither of them has the policies to make it happen, although Labour is at least facing the right way.
What a chance, eh, National? Don’t rural New Zealanders deserve that you forget the easy slogans and take them seriously?