The Big Reset
By Keith Beautrais
Forest and Bird member
I have never felt more grateful for living on our twin-hull waka Aotearoa than I do now. Our strength as a small resourceful crew way out in the Pacific has been tested hard and we are still upright and paddling. But now there is a great big hairy-scary deficit on the loose and it must be repaid if we and our children are to live a happy life ahead. Worse still, there are two scary deficits, but last week's Budget turned out to have a lot to say on both.
The obvious deficit is the multi-billions Grant Robertson embraced to keep our economy afloat. There is a consensus that to maintain employment and human welfare we need to borrow against our very good credit rating. That credit is good because we have tended to repay borrowing much more conscientiously than other western countries.
The other deficit is even more fundamental to our futures because it is the result of centuries of withdrawing resources from nature and only recording that in the credit column of our economic budgets. As a result our soils, forests, wetlands, rivers, fish stocks, aquifers, atmosphere and nearly all our native wildlife have been in serious decline as deficit after deficit occurred without any thoughts of repayment.
The State of the Environment report called it out last year. Without the political pressure applied by previous governments to sugar-coat the realities, scientists were freed to explain how our environmental deficits were becoming unsustainable. We must not take for granted the services nature provides, from healthy water to rich soils that can grow wholesome food.
Surprising then that some are pushing the Government to hit our natural capital balance yet again to bail us out. One such call is to fast-track RMA approval for projects to lower the environmental protection we need to safeguard what is left of our natural capital balance.
Speeding up the process is no excuse to disguise the fiscal deficit by blowing out the massive environmental one. Any fast-track RMA legislation must have strong environmental bottom lines that guarantee only projects that protect the environment can progress. Projects that harm nature or cause a rise in our greenhouse gases don't deserve to be fast-tracked.
Another call is to subsidise big irrigation schemes that have totally failed to stack up financially let alone environmentally. That way we would end up with more farms going down the intensive, high fertiliser input route that is the cause of polluted streams and increasingly unsafe nitrogen levels in drinking water.
We can back our resourceful hardworking primary sector in smarter more sustainable ways that can be just as profitable as ramping up volumes of production. It was good to see the budget included a $230 million productive and sustainable land use package to support farmers, councils, iwi/hapū, and regions to transition to more sustainable land use. The most practical environmentalists have generally been the best of farmers, we need to further encourage that.
Of course the most exciting part of the budget is the more than $1 billion for nature-based jobs. Targets include remediating waterways and restoring the Kaipara Harbour which, by the way, is where most of the snapper caught around the North Island breed. The budget was massively rewritten in response to Covid 19 so bits will need developing. We all need to think about the best use of the wide range of other green nature-based jobs proposed.
The $1b will apply human and fiscal resources to solve many problems accumulated over the years but it will only be a start and we need to see more if the reset in this reset Budget will truly address both great big scary deficits.
There is another $20b held back by the Government as part of its rolling maul approach to staying ahead of the damage the virus has done. Wouldn't it be great to use more of it as an investment in environmental sustainability spread far and wide across the land that provides our surpluses?