David Cunliffe: a political vision?

David Cunliffe offers personal observations from the Greens’ economic conference, on how to do good — “to do good, first we must win” — and possibly, also on how to win

The convenor fires off two cheap shots, one not quite appreciated by his audience (a snipe about burning coal at Huntly, to air-condition the chilly late-afternoon room) and the other hugely enjoyed, including by butt of the joke Nick Smith. “I’m probably the least green person in the room,” he says, “or maybe,” (glancing at Dr Smith sitting beside him) “the second least green person …”.

He starts as he means to go on, in other words: detached, and even-handed about the politics of sustainability.

Nick Smith’s speech is here. A good and faithful steward of government policy, he alludes to the tendency to talk a lot about 'sustainability' without quite pinning down what it means. “It is not going to cut the mustard to just go on producing copious volumes of soft and mushy words on sustainability,” he says, ostensibly referring to the Ministry for the Environment.

Also, “some in this green growth space naively want New Zealand to shy away from the opportunities for us to grow our primary industries because these rely on use of our natural resources” (referring in particular to farming, but also natural resource industries more generally, as our first best opportunity).

“Nor should those favouring green growth strategies dismiss opportunities for mineral development in New Zealand … There is nothing environmentally sound about rebuffing New Zealand’s own minerals industry while we meet our needs from offshore mines out of sight and out of mind.”

He rehearses his ‘bluegreen’ list of achievements (ie, some blue achievements and some Green ones): pricing carbon emissions by way of the ETS; more renewable electricity generation “after a decade of going backwards” and less deforestation; the waste minimisation levy and recycling; the Warm-Up New Zealand Heat Smart insulation programme; freeing electric cars from road user charges; the biofuels subsidy; water metering for water management. “There will always be calls to do more, but each of these need to be robustly tested.”

“New Zealand is making real progress in this bluegreen space,” he concludes, neatly side-stepping the issue today, of what a truly sustainable economy might mean: is it, in fact, just dressing up the old economic model in some new green clothes, or is the model completely broken.

Later, I watch Dr Smith watching David Cunliffe speak. He looks tired, fiddles with his wedding ring, and I wonder what he’s thinking, behind that small polite tired smile. “I was a lion in opposition, too.” “What a lot of boring nonsense David talks.” “Yeah, right.” Or just whatever Ministerial problems lay on his desk that day — the real business of running the country — while the rest of us waffle idealistically about how to, you know, save the world, or keep busy rearranging its chairs.

Meanwhile, Cunliffe was happily telling how, in his first term, he introduced a member’s Bill for ‘triple bottom line’ reporting for the state sector. His anecdote is a mea culpa — ‘triple bottom line’ reporting has been dismissed in the morning by keynote speaker David Suzuki as “the dumbest idea I ever heard” — but it tells us he means well, always has. He enthuses about his new reading list, and his continuing education into things like keeping bees, and growing veg, and composting.

He says these are his “personal observations made in relation to material at this conference. I will refer to Labour’s proud record in the environmental area, and the way our new policy is developing. But I will also share some personal reflections on the nature of the challenges we collectively face”.

For Labour, “this is the crucial time when we do the strategic thinking that will allow us to lead this country well in government”. The challenge for Labour now is to write a plan that is “environmentally sustainable, economically feasible, and politically winnable,” because above all, “To do good, first we must win”.

He reminds us of Labour’s pedigree: Manapouri, protesting French nuclear testing at Mururoa, establishing the Department of Conservation … and so on, to sundry battered but much-loved 1999-2008 policy trophies. And I think, listening to him: every government does some good things. Hell, Nick Smith is doing some good things. It’s frustrating, this persistent failure by Labour to recognise — or is it just a temporary refusal to acknowledge? — the gulf between sustainability rhetoric and reality that the Clark government in fact delivered.

The other elephant shivering in the corner of the room today is whether growth can, in fact, continue — and on the matter of the role and importance of growth to our economy, some of Clark’s statements in 2002 and 2005 are all but indistinguishable from Key’s in 2008 and 2010. “My government sees its most important task as building the conditions for increasing New Zealand’s long term sustainable rate of economic growth …” she said in 2002.

Looking forward, though, Cunliffe says, blandly, that “Labour is keen to achieve sustainability by exploring solutions that are clean, green and clever. We want to find the win-wins …” and “we are convinced of the need to move to a low carbon clean tech economy,” the challenge being how to get there with minimum disruption.

But, he also says that “The Labour Party now recognises that the neo-liberal economic model cannot provide the basis for navigating the economic, environmental and social challenges of our times.”

And, “We must live within the capacity of the Earth to support us. ... The Earth is not just there for human utility.”

And, “If the situation is as serious as we think, we must do the hard yards to back out of this corner … We have to ask the hard questions; ask what policies are available to get us from a collision course with nature to a future that is both more just and more sustainable.”

Those ideas, if fleshed out and taken up by the party, would be a fundamental change.

He says that for Labour, the environment is not an extra cost but an integral part of thinking about the economy. It cannot be other than an implicit dig at the current government’s persistent “balancing economic opportunities with environmental responsibilities”.

And he reminds us of Phil Goff’s remarks to Forest & Bird earlier in the year: “Labour is committed to being a careful custodian of our environment, because it is embedded in our view of the world that we have a responsibility to care for more than just our own self-interest …”. Again, he’s poking at a blind spot in the present government’s conservation policy, but also, that interest beyond self-interest — or in other words, intrinsic value? — is part of ecological economics.

The Green party will, shortly, decide their policy on governing arrangements going into the next election. The drift of Cunliffe’s remarks, beside Smith’s, may be of interest to them.

Of wider interest, and much happiness, the potential was there on Friday — even if tentatively, with much left unsaid between the lines — for the question of what being true green means these days (as opposed to ‘bluegreen’, in inverted commas) to become an election issue.

Of very much longer-term interest, if the Greens’ truths were accepted in the end and their ideas fully realised, I wonder how the new dawn of politics would look.

Because all parties would have to be Green parties, putting the carrying capacity of the planet first, perhaps dickering about other philosophies beneath that green umbrella. And I wonder if the true test in the end, of the size of Greens’ love for the planet, is whether they would sacrifice themselves politically, to save it.