Election 2011: blue green or true green?

Three parties laid out their wares last week. Nats and Labour gave us a left-right choice: Robin Hood-style tax-grab, or partial SOE sales. Thanks to a tidy paint job, when the ‘Bluegreens’ and Greens offered theirs, the difference was harder to spot, but no less large

It took me a while to parse the speeches. The blue one looks green enough to pass muster, and the Green one says as much between the lines as in them — which is fine, if you speak the language.

Green party co-leader Russel Norman summed up the ‘state of the planet’ at the Green party campaign conference last weekend. Coincidentally or otherwise, down in Akaroa at the ‘Bluegreens’ conference, Bluegreen co-founder Nick Smith and colleagues painted themselves environmentally concerned and responsible, with a slew of eco-policies.

Both claimed credit for Green initiatives.

Nick Smith: “in July 2009 [we] introduced the $10 a tonne waste levy. This levy is helping support new recycling initiatives all over the country”. And, “… That is why we’ve put $347 million into home insulation”.

Ahem. The Waste Minimisation Act, and what is now called ‘Warm Up New Zealand: Heat Smart’, were Green party-driven. Home insulation was, in the end, a joint venture, that is true. The $10 per tonne waste levy was introduced because that is what the Act, passed in 2008, provided for. Here is the other side of the rubbish story.

Russel Norman, too, audaciously wanted credit for his own party’s ideas — the home insulation, and MMP, on which his predecessor Rod Donald led the charge. It’s up for grabs this year in the referendum and, of course, it’s the lifeline, on which the Greens depend.

There were other themes in the two speeches: summer forays into nature, protecting our natural capital, the environment is the basis of a strong economy for New Zealand, green clean-tech jobs. Fresh water management (in Canterbury). Climate change, and the need to respond.

Smith channelled Groser: “It is ridiculous and incoherent to be negotiating cuts to emissions while also subsidising them, and Bluegreens can be proud of the work Tim is doing to advance this global debate”. Yes. He said they should be proud of the emissions trading scheme, too — which, it’s true, he’s kept. But the coal industry is leaping into massive new investment with gay abandon.

Smith had a theme of his own: papering over the cracks, in election year.

The ETS is being reviewed this year. A report is due pre-election, but advisory work will continue until the end of the year. He neutralised other issues, the same way. Gazetting a 50 by 50 emissions reduction target (projections are up 30 by 20). The new ‘Advisory Group on Green Growth’, from whom a final report is expected by the end of the year. Talk of a new way forward for the Mackenzie country, with the emphasis on the talk part:

A third key idea we Bluegreens have promoted is a more collaborative approach to environmental issues. … This thinking has driven the very constructive work on freshwater management in 2010 by the Land and Water Forum … Jacqui Dean will today be talking about how this new approach might be a way forward for resolving long and protracted debates in the iconic McKenzie [sic] Country.

The Advisory Group on Green Growth:

“is another part of the Government’s plan to build a faster growing economy,” Mr English said … . Dr Smith said: “… This is about New Zealand applying some of our best private sector minds to how we ensure we take up these green growth opportunities to support the Government’s broader economic growth strategy”.

Growth, growth. Did they mention growth? Also, “leveraging our brand”:

“We are keen to help businesses — particularly our export industries — leverage New Zealand’s clean, green brand …”

“The terms of reference focuses on how Government agencies can help exporters leverage greater value from New Zealand’s clean, green brand …”

Business New Zealand Chief Executive and Chair Phil O’Reilly told Morning Report he wouldn’t be interested in doing this job for the government, if it was just ‘greenwash’. Advisory Group members also include Ecologic Foundation Executive Director Guy Salmon, and winemaker and businessman Peter Yealands: high profile greenies both.

A pithy piece of advice from them might say that the best way to “leverage greater value” from the brand would be by making it true.

Norman wasn’t ruling out green growth either, in fact, he was counting on it. Economic growth, or growth in consumption, he danced around a bit, but it was there:

“The true test of an economy is not the rise or fall of GDP.”

“Smart Green economics takes the best from Keynesian economics and the best from free market economics and places it within the framework of a planet with finite resources.”

“This is the path to a treadmill of working ourselves and our natural environment harder and harder until we all collapse. The Green way is to work smarter within the limits of the natural world.”

He challenged National’s record, on growing inequality, and poor economic management. These things are not sustainable, therefore, not green. He called for active, not passive, government: pollution needs proper pricing and, “we have been forced to relearn the lesson of the 1930s — markets need regulating”.

The Greens, he said (either bold or stupid) are going where others won’t dare: fronting the election charge with a capital gains tax. There was a wee message for Labour here, too. The trouble with cherry-picking the nicest Green policies — the populist ones — is that one does get into a bit of a bind, explaining how they’ll be paid for.

The fundamental difference between Bluegreens and Greens is this. Norman was talking about something bigger. “The old economic order is dying, and we have a choice to make.”

Blue is the old order.

It was a policy speech, more than a concept speech. But there were two quite simple concepts in it, that could have been simply stated.

The Greens can deal with the big issues, the ones that matter to people in their day to day lives: cost of living (cost of fuel), climate change (the ultimate environmental threat), jobs. The Greens are the party trying to help people maintain their standard of living, in a changing world.