Oil be alright. But has Labour learnt the wrong lesson from its past?

Jacinda Ardern has drawn on our national pride in New Zealand's nuclear-free stance to rally support for her decision to end offshore oil drilling. But her announcement has echoes of Douglas and Prebble as much as Lange and Palmer

When Jacinda Ardern was asked to justify her government's decision to stop issuing oil drilling permits forthwith she drew on a memory that sits deep in her party's - and our country's - soul. Our nuclear-free status. The decision for me, however, recalls another controversial move by that same fourth Labour government.

Labour's decision not to issue any new permits for offshore oil exploration is a generational decision and one that will have a profound legacy one way or another. Put simply, it's a biggie. 

For Ardern and her team, so long out of government, it is a chance to do the sort of thing they expect Labour government's to do. The moral thing. Policies that show vision and make the world a better place. What's more, it shows leadership in the Pacific.

As with our nuclear-free policy, the decision to leave the oil where it is gives New Zealand the moral high ground, a sense of mission and it gets us noticed. It's also similar in that it will also do next to nothing in the short term to change global behaviour or make the world safer. Our nuclear-free stance has been largely symbolic, as will this stance be, unless or until the rest of the world follows suit. But symbols have value. For a start, it sends a signal that we no longer want to be what John Key famously called "fast followers"; we want to lead. That will have repercussions for good and ill, just as our nuclear-free policy did. 

The fact of the matter it, as Ardern has said, "someone had to do it". And someone will have to keep doing a lot more if we want a shot at keeping the global temperature rise to anywhere near 1.5 degrees celsius. Trees and transport will be the key parts of our efforts until we find scientific solutions to methane emissions from livestock. The IPCC is due to release a report in October on how exactly the world can avoid that disastrous climate change, but a leaked report in February said it was increasingly a long-shot and drastic change will be needed. So in that sense Labour is simply anticipating the inevitable.

So it was a question not of 'if', buy 'how'. And crucially 'when'. 

In that regard, Labour's approach has been more like its predecessors' Rogernomics blitzkrieg.

While Sir Geoffrey Palmer still defends Labour's 1984 manifesto (that he wrote), most accept now that the economic policy was written in a purposefully murky style that allowed for rapid deregulation and the introduction of free-market policies without much scrutiny and without breaking specific promises. Labour's energy policy last year followed the same oily trail.

In 2014, Labour's then-Energy spokesman David Shearer broke ranks with his leader David Cunliffe and announced their policy on drilling live on television. He promised better safety regulations, more public consultation, more jobs for New Zealanders and even a sovereign wealth fund, but committed to more offshore drilling. The release infuriated the party, but it was clear.

Last year, Labour fudged. When it spoke about offshore drilling, the party promised tougher environmental standards:

"Over time, migrate existing petroleum exploration and production permits to any higher standards that have been brought in".

That implied continuation "over time". But the clues of something else were also there, bubbling up through cracks in the policy, with lines such as:

"...transitioning away from our reliance on fossil fuels to a high-tech, low carbon economy" ... "transition rapidly" ..." transition swiftly but smoothly" ... and "most known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground".

Like Rogernomics, last week's decision was announced with no real consultation and ruthless speed. There was no time for opponents to circle the tankers. Like Rogernomics, it moved Labour away from the safe centre and took it to the edge of mainstream politics. And like Rogernomics, they have shown no sign that they have planned for the consequences - forseeon or unforseen - of this policy.

Ardern herself recognised the comparison, although through a different lens. The Prime Minister said her announcement was intended to avoid exactly the harm done in the wake of Rogernomics, as regional economies stripped of subsidies and protected by tarrifs and the spending and employment policies of government departments saw all that disappear in a blink.

"I saw that once in the 1980s and I don't want to see it again," she said. "This won't change the landscape immediately, but it will eventually."

The industry sees it differently, and you can see where it got the impression. Perhaps Ardern is closing a door the industry didn't want to go through anyway; only two permits have been sought in each of the past two years. But oil companies and the many servicing companies might have expected to be consulted and listened to by a government that has promised a new transparency. This feels like either a deliberate blindsiding or a rush job. (Given it has working groups and committees for just about every other significant change under consideration, you can see why critics are suggesting the former).

Talk to members of the fourth Labour government today and few resile from the thrust of the economic reforms, but almost all wish they had done it differently. More slowly, with transition funding and re-training upfront. With more consultation. More commitment to not leaving some people on the scrapheap.

Sadly, there's no sign this government has heeded that lesson. Not yet anyway. The announcement came with the zeal of the nuclear-free dream, but without the legwork. There was no transition fund announced. No plan to find new purposes for the people and their skills. No three year grace period, for example, in which the country's fourth largest export-earning industry could start on what Greens co-leader James Shaw has promised will be a "gentle transition". Instead, the government's shown a risky complacency that the 22 permits already in place means it has time.  

The last of the permits is reportedly set to end in 2030. The fact is that if the world has not made massive strides towards renewable by then we are in deep climatic trouble.

If we in New Zealand are get to 100% renewables by 2035 and carbon neutrality by 2050, government and industry both need to make decisions and act. Fast. This is a clear indication to business to start acting. What National now calls "virtue signalling" would have been called " providing certainty" or "incentivising business" had the announcement come from its team.

The only point of doing this at pace, is to ensure New Zealand leads the way into the green economy and wins a competitive advantage. So we need to see the government's plan for how it gets from grime to green.

But by embarking on this in a sudden, even sneaky, way and without a considered and consulted transition plan, it's undermined the 'what' by buggering up the 'how'. Labour has failed to learn from its own history. Or, at least, the part of its history Ardern says inspired this bold move. The question now is whether the government moves rapidly and with proper thought to live up to its promise of that "gentle transition".