Ali Baba & the mining of New Zealand

The government says it wants to balance green growth with digging holes, but can we do both? Perhaps we should slow down, rather than end up somewhere we don't want to be

Let's call a spade a spade. Or, at least, be frank about what the government hopes to do with its spade: It wants more mining and drilling in this country – more than most New Zealanders are comfortable with. And it wants to convince you and me that's a great idea. All this talk of "discourse" and "conversation" is all strategy.

The government's carefully managed Greening New Zealand's Growth strategy was released at the weekend – and I say carefully managed because the advisory group was chaired by Business NZ CEO Phil O'Reilly, who is both very able and can be relied upon to deliver the result National wants.

As well as stressing that few countries are better placed than New Zealand to profit from the growing demand for green products and services, the report nudges forward the idea of further oil and mining exploration, just as the government wants.

This is a classic example of a report's PR strategy being as prominent as its economic one – and National, Business NZ and Straterra are all singing the same hmyn. In only slightly different words, all are calling for 'a mature discussion' about how we deal with the mineral riches with which this country is so blessed.

But we all know that if politicians want to do something and have the focus groups behind them, they just do. You only 'discuss' when you're up against it, or at least nervous. Then you add a few key phrases, such as "we need to depoliticise the idea" or "We don't want to turn this into a party political broadcast of either the right or the left". (Quotes taken directly from O'Reilly's address at the weekend).

Cutting through the spin, what they're really saying is: 'Mining and drilling are unpopular, but we want to take the heat out of the issue and do as much as we can get away with'.

In this "conversation", the government and pro-exploring business leaders expect to do all the talking – there's no chance of them being convinced that more mining and drilling are a bad idea. It's all about persuading you and me.

Which is sad, because a mature discussion is exactly what's needed. There are compelling arguments on both sides of this debate worth hearing - serious exports and jobs to be had, but also serious risks to our environment, long-term prosperity, even our diplomacy and place in the world.

There is an Ali Baba's cave of mineral wealth in New Zealand – not just on land either, but under our vast exclusive economic zone. But just like Ali Baba's cave, if we're greedy things could end very badly indeed.

What the government has to explain – rather than trying to spin us – is how we can go into that cave without the door closing behind us.

Exactly what protection measures can be taken? What laws passed? What technology harnessed? What bottomlines drawn? What guarantees offered?

It needs to spell out how we can promote the 100% Pure image of New Zealand and protect the green tourism, cleantech and safe food industries while also drilling and mining the natural resources the other industries rely on.

That may be too hard, but I'm not yet convinced it's impossible. Norway, for example, seems to have walked a line of mineral wealth and environmental protection. They have both this and this. And do we really want to walk away from Norway-level wealth, soci al services and the like without looking at all the options.

On the other hand, there's an element of a zero-sum game here. At some point (and I'm not sure anyone knows or can know where that is), mining can only expand at the expense of green growth, and vice versa. You may be able to have a little of both, but not a lot. At some point you're too far into the cave to get out.

Which suggests caution. The temptation is strong to charge in – to start digging and drilling and making money today. But unlike Ali Baba's brother Cassim, who got over-excited and over-reached, we should think ahead and consider long-term profits.

The same argument can be made for cleantech, by the way. Let's consider our economic future carefully, not indulge in short-termism.

National's attitude towards climate change and green ecomonics is that there's no rush. We musn't lead the world, lest that costs us in the near-term, has been this government's mantra. National has repeatedly warned that the technology to cut emissions does not exist. The advisory group's report talks about markets more focused on sustainability "30 to 50 years out and beyond", not of the demand today.

Whatever the wisdom of that, the argument goes both ways. There is also no rush to mine our resources to the max today. If the technology isn't there, then let's wait until it is (as we're supposed to with methane emissions from animals). If the laws aren't passed to cover our arses in the event of a BP-in-the-Gulf-type spill, then let's wait until they are (cos we all know they weren't with the Rena). And if the business case isn't certain, let's taihoa.

The thing is, scarcity creates value. So as oil peaks and minerals are mined elsewhere, the value of our mineral wealth will only grow for later generations. There's nothing to be lost by waiting.

The green growth report makes it clear – we're well placed as it is and the demand will only grow as time passes. But are our politicians able to see beyond the three year cycle and wait if wisdom dictates patience?