Wednesday, December 17, 2008

National’s weakness

A major weakness in the National-led Government may be emerging: The environment. Within days of winning the election, National bowed to the demands of the neoconservative ACT Party and suspended the Emissions Trading Scheme, which in the campaign they only said they would amend. They also agreed to ACT’s demand for a Parliamentary enquiry into climate change to allow climate change deniers, like ACT, a forum to create a “plausible case” for ending New Zealand’s commitment to fighting climate change as ACT wants; National had campaigned on fighting climate change.

Once its government was set up, National set about ending subsidies to help insulate older houses. New Zealand’s death rate is 18% higher in winter than would normally be expected precisely because of poorly insulated and heated houses. So the programme wasn’t just about saving energy, but also improving New Zealanders’ health, thereby cutting costs.

Now National is gutting New Zealand’s biofuels legislation. The previous Labour-led Government had enacted world-leading legislation in this area. It mandated the percentage of fuel that must be biofuels (a mix of 0.5% biofuels and 99.5% petroleum) and—more importantly—it mandated sustainability in biofuel production so that food wasn’t diverted to fuel cars and trucks. National is repealing the mandated percentages and ending the sustainability requirement.

The mandate was critical because in the absence of natural demand, government needed to create demand through compulsion. The multi-national oil companies would never move to biofuels on their own, just as they would never have removed lead or reduced sulphur or benzene levels without government requiring them to do so.

The mandate, together with the sustainability requirements, also created certainty in the market, encouraging investment in sustainable biofuels production. Thanks to National’s actions, an innovative plant that would turn tallow (a dairy manufacturing by-product) into fuel will now likely be cancelled, taking dozens of jobs in an economically depressed area with it. The tallow will likely be shipped to China for its own biofuels production.

The net effect of National’s moves is to take New Zealand from being a world leader to being the first nation in the developed world to abandon biofuels. National will live to regret that for many reasons.

So, why did they do it? Pure ideology. National is genetically opposed to government mandates, even when they would produce a clear benefit to the country as a whole. Like most conservative parties, National believes in the sanctity of “the market”, that it will deliver all great and good things if only it is left unfettered and unrestricted (in fairness, they recognise that some regulation is necessary, unlike ACT). But the worst part is that—yet again—they’re doing all this under urgency to keep ordinary New Zealanders from having input into the process.

National needs to re-focus on their election promises and work on the environment, as ordinary New Zealanders want, and not just do what big business wants. If they don’t, this could be their Achilles’ heel.

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