After the honeymoon, divorce: Greens break up with National

The Greens have walked away from part of their working arrangement with the government. Jeanette Fitzsimons revealed exclusively to Pundit a relationship breakdown in the energy efficiency and conservation portfolio

Last month, here on Pundit, I speculated that all was not well between the Greens and the government. Former co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons did not wish to comment then, but now she’s speaking out. The Greens have concluded that the energy efficiency and conservation part of the relationship is unsustainable, she and Gerry Brownlee cannot work together, and energy efficiency and conservation should, therefore, be deleted from the National-Greens memorandum of understanding (MOU).

Previous posts, here and here, set out the background. Brownlee had announced in August that the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy (EECS) would be replaced. Developed in 2007 by Fitzsimons, who was then government spokesperson, the EECS met the requirements of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act 2000, and was at the heart of the previous government’s economic transformation and climate change readiness policies.

According to the National-Greens MOU, signed in April, Fitzsimons was to be involved in updating and revision of the strategy. Brownlee, the minister of energy, told me that as per the terms of the MOU, Ms Fitzsimons is involved in the development of the new Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy”. But I had learned that, contrary to the spirit if not perhaps the letter of the MOU, Fitzsimons was not “involved” in any meaningful sense.

This is a story about process failure and, perhaps, lack of good faith. It tells how this government – or, at least, Brownlee – defines “involvement” and treats its friends.

After trying and failing to engage in what she felt was a proper way with Brownlee, and ascertaining that he didn’t have any energy efficiency-related ideas of his own, Fitzsimons wrote a letter. In it, she suggested some ways forward on energy efficiency policy, and expressed some concern about difficulty progressing things to date.

The letter, written in August and copied to Key, prompted a meeting with Brownlee, in which she reiterated in person that in her opinion, the single most important step would be vehicle fuel efficiency standards for new and used imports. There were evidence-based reasons for this: it is an area that has a decent-sized impact on New Zealand’s emissions profile; in which government intervention is justified by market failure; where we under-perform by international standards; and that, like home insulation, would help ordinary people manage their bills. She asked Brownlee to discuss with Transport Minister Steven Joyce whether it might become a future priority for this government.

Vehicle fuel efficiency standards are an aspect of the EECS that was, by then, under review. Fitzsimons was supposed to be involved, and briefed on key developments. She and Brownlee had had correspondence and a conversation about it. Yet without any further communication from the government, Joyce publicly announced on August 28 that this work would not proceed. Fitzsimons says she heard the news from journalists, who were phoning her for comment.

In a way, this was no surprise: the announcement that the EECS would be replaced had similarly reached her by way of public notice in the New Zealand Herald. That was a mutual failure of communication: rightly or wrongly, Fitzsimons had thought updating the strategy would only require a minor process whereas, under the relevant Act, the publicly announced replacement signals a major overhaul. The notice, signed by Brownlee on August 3, appeared in daily papers and the New Zealand Gazette on August 13. Fitzsimons was briefed by officials five days later.

Coincidentally, on the morning of my meeting with Fitzsimons, Gerry Brownlee released a briefing to me under the Official Information Act dated May 12, 2009 – a month after the National-Greens MOU was signed. It’s a twelve-page document from the Ministry of Economic Development, advising on “Options for updating the New Zealand Energy Efficiency Strategy”.

I took the briefing to our meeting. I had questions for Fitzsimons about it. As it turned out she couldn’t answer them because neither she nor her staff had seen it.

The briefing sets out official advice and options for updating and joining the New Zealand Energy Strategy (NZES) and the EECS into a single comprehensive government strategy. As such, it falls squarely within the frame of the MOU.

It signals three things:

  1. A preference for a “high level approach to both strategies rather than detailing action lists stipulating discrete policy programmes … the preferred option challenges the notion that the [EECS] must or should contain a detailed list of actions”.
  2. An explicit decision as to whether what is envisaged for the EECS constitutes minor or major change, thus requiring statutory replacement. The failure of communication above could have been remedied quite simply, by briefing Fitzsimons on the document.
  3. Third, under the heading “other related issues”, a discussion that hints at abolishing or amending the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act 2000 that underpins the EECS: “Such a review would allow Government an opportunity to fully review the pros and cons of the legislative basis to the strategy and its consultative requirements. If desired such a review could allow further in depth consideration of whether the NZES is in fact sufficient in itself for setting the strategic direction and key actions for energy efficiency … ”.


Fitzsimons wrote the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act. It began life as a Member’s Bill. As a courtesy, given the working arrangement, you'd expect her to be told of this line of thinking – might perhaps expect her to have useful opinions on the subject.

I suggested in a previous post that, because of the Act’s requirements, the onus would fall on Brownlee to justify departures from the EECS, and that this would be a good thing. Whether the EECS is flawed is moot – which is why a line-by-line critique, before abandoning any or all aspects, would be useful. Brownlee’s response to my Official Information Act request confirms that, to date, he is proceeding without any such advice. Consultation on the future shape of the EECS is yet to come, but the briefing leaves little room for doubt that he’s considering significant change.

If Fitzsimons is out of the loop, so are Brownlee’s cabinet colleagues. I also asked the minister for copies of any relevant cabinet papers. It seems there are none. Efficient energy use affects voters’ exposure to power and petrol prices, which this government says it cares about. It affects our emissions profile and, as such, could have a significant impact on the country's finances, if we get it right. It affects our brand. These are strategic whole-of-government matters; cabinet should be taking an interest in them, not leaving Brownlee to set policy unilaterally.

The MOU says both parties’ leaders will meet quarterly, to keep an eye on progress. Fitzsimons says she telephoned Key in early September, informally indicating that if matters with Brownlee could not be improved, it would be advisable for the Greens to withdraw: her time is precious, and investment in the relationship is not being reciprocated. Key asked for time to deal with the matter; since then, according to Fitzsimons, she has heard nothing. Green Party co-leaders Metiria Turei and Russel Norman have now written formally to Key, withdrawing from that part of the MOU.

This, in itself, demonstrates astonishing lack of commitment by the government. The Greens do not give confidence and supply, like the Maori Party, but the affiliation bolsters the government’s “Bluegreen” credibility, and is something National voters care about. The Greens were National voters’ preferred coalition partner pre-election, and recent polling shows those voters are unhappy with emissions trading policy.

I asked Fitzsimons whether the Greens’ pre-election distaste for National exposes them to risk of blame for not trying hard enough. I wondered whether the strained relationship might in fact be their fault; I also wondered about the Greens’ political interest in painting National blacker than it is, because of those Bluegreen votes. She responded that there are other MOU projects on which good progress is being made, such as the national cycleway; home insulation also worked well. It may yet be possible to find other areas of common ground. As for her own efforts over a period of months to try to work constructively, she was happy to let the record and her reputation speak for themselves.

Yet again, Key finds himself in public dispute with another party and facing questions about his political management, when, any time in the intervening two months, a satisfactory conclusion could have been attempted behind closed doors.