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Surviving 2020: Not the time to vote with the tribe

If we want New Zealand to be better after the Covid crisis than it was before we will have to break free from our tribal politics to build it, but right now we’re heading rapidly in the opposite direction, writes Rod Oram

Almost all our massive investment in recovery will perpetuate many of our long running economic, environmental and social failures.

There are proposals for us to build back much better, some of which I described in this recent column. But tribal politics are killing them off.

"This notion that we're somehow going to issue a green edict and all of a sudden that we'll be driving hydrogen cars and legally smoking dope in the new economic nirvana is just never ever going to work," Shane Jones, NZ First deputy leader and Infrastructure Minister in the Labour-led coalition government, said recently.

He said “grey” infrastructure projects (which use old technology and lock in emissions long term) were the best way to stimulate the economy and create jobs. He said “green” infrastructure could wait for investment later.

Clearly NZ First hopes opposing the Government of which it is a member will build its electoral strength so it can survive. Meanwhile, it seems Jacinda Ardern believes Labour is insufficiently attractive to voters so it needs NZ First’s support to form a government.

This, though, is contrary to plans in leading countries to invest heavily now in projects delivering economic and environmental benefits combined, as I described in this recent column.

A few days later, Jones was also quick to credit NZ First with forcing the Government to back down on limits to dissolved inorganic nitrogen in our waterways. They were a central recommendation of the Science and Technological Advisory Group which advised the Government on the reform of water regulations.

On these and many other issues, NZ First is exercising considerable veto power over the Labour-led coalition’s ambitions and plans. Worse, its power is increasing even as its voter support is falling – from 7.2 percent at the last election to 2.9 percent in the May 1 News poll.

Clearly NZ First hopes opposing the Government of which it is a member will build its electoral strength so it can survive. Meanwhile, it seems Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern believes Labour is insufficiently attractive to voters so it needs NZ First’s support to form a government.

Tribalism is rampant in the National Party too. Last November it announced simultaneously that it would vote for the Zero Carbon Bill but said it would significantly amend it when it was next in government. Its political strategy nullified the purpose of the legislation which is to give long-term policy certainty on climate action to business, government and civil society at large.

This week, the Government finally committed to key reforms of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which remains our only substantive policy instrument to date to tackle the climate crisis.

But National’s climate change spokesperson Scott Simpson​ said the bill should be delayed 12 months. "We don't think now is the appropriate and right time to be introducing legislation that is effectively a further impost on the cost of living [and] on the way New Zealanders do business in a post-Covid recovery environment."

This was precisely the tactic National took on the ETS after it won the 2008 election. It argued that business couldn’t cope with it in the recovery from the Global Financial Crisis. So only months after the previous Parliament had enacted the ETS under the Labour-led government, National rendered it useless for more than a decade. Only the current legislation it opposes would right that wrong.

Then and now such delays and policy reversals disincentivise businesses from playing their role in tackling the climate crisis. It also makes them more vulnerable to climate impacts. Conversely, prompt action makes them better, more valuable businesses. In many global sectors, companies committed to sustainability outperform their uncommitted rivals in market and investment terms.

Yet, there is significant support from New Zealanders for action on climate and other sustainability issues. For example, 63 percent of Kiwis responding to a global poll by Ipsos earlier this year agreed with the proposition that if their government “does not act now to combat climate change, it will be failing the people.” Only 14 percent strongly disagreed.

And 52 percent agreed with the proposition “If a political party’s policies don’t deal seriously with climate change, this would put me off voting for them.” Only 19 percent strongly disagreed.

The Ipsos survey, released on the 50th annual Earth Day, also shed light on Kiwi attitudes on a wide range of other sustainability issues relative to people in other countries.

A more detailed analysis of our stance on sustainability is available in the Better Futures 2020 report by market researchers Colmar Brunton. It shows 52 percent of those polled showed “real concern” about climate change, up from 29 percent in 2019, as this chart shows:

The report also shows that 46 percent want the government to lead on climate policy. Of those, 74 percent say environmental policies are important in how they vote, and 73 per cent are taking personal action on climate change.

By far the strongest support comes from people aged 18 to 29. Six of their top 10 issues are environmental. They also feel the most empowered on climate issues, rating 6.1 on a 1-10 scale, compared with 5.8 for the population as a whole.

... business leaders, who are the most tribal voters of all, need to rethink their corporate decisions on funding parties and on their personal voting decisions. In all good faith, they can’t advocate for progress ... then vote for National

There are a wealth of insights on other sustainability issues too. For example, 49 percent of respondents (across all ages) somewhat or mostly agree that “New Zealanders need to change their diet to save our environment.”

Given such breadth of support on sustainability issues some respondents to the above sustainability surveys must be habitual National and NZ First voters, and possibly even a few are ACT ones.

Data from the 2017 Election Survey sheds some light on this. The environment was the number one election issue for Green voters (with 34.1 percent of them rating it as their personal number one issue); it was the 4th most important issue for ACT voters (with 18.4 percent saying it was their personal top issue); 5th for Labour (and top for 6.5 percent of its voters); NZ First 6th (and top for 4.1 percent of its voters); and for National voters the environment was their 10th most important issue (and top for 2.4 percent of its voters).

On climate change, voters were asked : “To act against climate change, policies are needed to reduce carbon emissions.” Of Green voters, 94 percent strongly agreed or somewhat agreed; Labour 81.5 percent; ACT 68.1 percent; National 62.1 percent; and NZ First 57.7 percent.

ACT’s leader David Seymour says the scores for his voters were likely “statistically insignificant” given the very small number of ACT voters surveyed. However, he says, some of its voters “are concerned about real environmental issues that aren’t being addressed.” On climate change, its voters range from “those who have some concern about the science” to those “who urge us to be much more strident” on tackling climate change in a way that makes economic sense for New Zealand as a small emitter in global terms.

If you are a voter who puts the environment and climate change very high in your priorities you have a crucial role to play over the 14 weeks to our next election, regardless of your party affiliation.

Please push your party very hard to acknowledge sustainability is our best road to Covid recovery - indeed, humankind’s only road to survival - and to commit to policies that will help us on that journey.

Realistically, though, the odds on us persuading our parties to do better on sustainability over the next few months are slender.

Thus, our best hope is to transcend our tribal politics and vote for sustainability itself on September 19, and to encourage all young people to vote too. They are the most eager of all of us for such a sustainable future; they will live far longer than the rest of us; and since they will be paying off government debt for decades to come, they should have a very strong voice in how the money is spent now.

In particular, business leaders, who are the most tribal voters of all, need to rethink their corporate decisions on funding parties and on their personal voting decisions. In all good faith, they can’t advocate for progress, as many of them do, for example, in the Climate Leaders Coalition, then vote for National which keeps stalling on climate action and other policies essential to our future.

A strong vote for sustainability would make the resulting Labour-Greens government a confident and ambitious reformer. That’s the traditional role Labour has played for more than a century, as Peter Dunne describes in his latest Newsroom column. 

Such a coalition would also need to win the 2023 election and possibly 2026’s. Those six years would embed deep, genuine progress; and it would give National time to revert to its traditional, and useful, role as consolidator of progress.

Far better that than National’s current impeding of progress, aided and abetted by NZ First.

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