Schedule 4: So what do the Nats stand for now?

The government says it's backdown on mining is evidence that it listens. But the question left is whether there's any policy Key and Co. will fight to the death for? And where's that step change coming from now?

Timid and without principle or pragmatic and unwilling to get ahead of voters. Yet again the government has, with its backdown on mining Schedule 4 land, given us a choice as to how to view them.

Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee spent the first half of the year laying out argument after argument as to why mining was a grand idea. Billions of dollars in GDP would flow from the mines saving us from our terrible national debt, "surgical mining" would replace the scars of yesteryear, it was only ever going to 0.2 percent of our land, mining created jobs, mines were tourist attractions... on and on they went. You can read all about them here.

Yet now, despite past and continued claims that New Zealanders are evenly split 50:50 on the issue, the government says it has "listened" and will ban miners away from Schedule 4 land. Well, you can't have it both ways. If people are 50:50 on this one, then you've only listened to as many people as you've ignored, haven't you? 

But putting the spin and the rights and wrongs of mining aside, it exposes the government on quite another political front. The question that remains - and which is becoming increasingly vital - is just what does this government stand for?

After a promising start on race relations, it has hedged its bets by giving the Maori Party a seabed and foreshore re-write and a UN declaration whilst at the same time slapping down Tuhoe and ignoring Maori seats on the new Auckland council. It made nice with the unions during the Jobs Summit and now plays to its base by restricting union access to workplace to the whim of employers. It wants to avoid leading the world on emissions trading, but has fought hard for the world's only all gases, all sectors scheme. The list of bet hedging goes on.

If you could pin down John Key and his Cabinet to one thing it was surely its commitment to "economic step change" above all else. Step change was its essential raison d'etre, right? A clear, ambitious goal never to be compromised?

Yet as recommendations from the Capital Markets Taskforce drift and talk of becoming financial services hub diminishes, for example, we're now told that we can do without the myriad economic benefits of mining after all.

In his groundbreaking - 'scuse the pun - speech to miners last year, Brownlee said:

"The National-led Government is absolutely determined to raise our living standards. That is going to require a big improvement to our economic growth and productivity rates. We see our natural resources as playing a big role in contributing to those goals...

As a nation we have neglected the contribution that the resources sector could make to our growth rate, levels of employment, and quality of life. Our Government wants to change that."

In reply to a question from Phil Goff, Brownlee said this in the House on May 5:

My answer is quite simply that mining at the moment takes up 0.015 percent of New Zealand’s land mass. If that were doubled, it would still be largely unnoticeable but it would provide some $4 billion to $5 billion in GDP. It could provide a similar amount in export receipts over a longer period of time. It is part of—and I have maintained this all the way—a number of things that will lead to a step change in the New Zealand economy.

So if it is part of the step change, how can it be abandoned without an ecomonic cost? If the government is absolutely determined to raise our living standards, what replacement plans does it have to improve the "revenue side of the ledger"?

Again, you decide whether this is sound entrist politics, or a lack of conviction. But it leaves anyone who pays any attention to politics in this country looking in vain for this government's bottom line. If it will toss aside even parts of our economic step change, what is it that these MPs stand for other than a second term?

All this at a time when the Prime Minister is getting a wishy-washy reptuation for considering every idea and ruling out nothing.

One other point that got lost in much of this debate... and that's simply that Schedule 4 was a political compromise in the first place. When it was initially agreed upon, it won cross-party support because it put aside 14 percent of the country as 'too precious' and left the rest open to prospecting and mining. After careful negotiation, then-Conservation Minister Nick Smith told the House:

"This [Crown Minerals] Bill at long last puts some pegs in the sand in some very significant areas of New Zealand and says to the mining industries of New Zealand: “These are no-go areas”.’

‘This Bill sets out quite clearly very significant areas of conservation estate in which mining is not allowed. That is something that this House should welcome.’

‘This is landmark legislation for the conservation movement in New Zealand. I welcome the Bill’s progress and, as Minister of Conservation, look forward to not having to consider mining applications in those areas where nature should be able to rule the roost."

It was a fool's errand to claim that a review of Schedule 4 was an attempt to balance the environment and the economy, when that's exactly what Schedule 4 achieved in the first place.

So now, once again, we can hopefully celebrate putting this debate behind us and leave nature to rule the roost... at least until some other administration wants to compromise the compromise!