Bryce Edwards: The Zero Carbon Act consensus and disagreement

Bryce Edwards: The Zero Carbon Act consensus and disagreement

The Zero Carbon Act (ZCA) is over a week old, but it’s still being heavily debated and analysed. After all, depending on who you listen to, it’s the most significant new law of the year, of this Government, or even of some people’s lifetime. And it deals with a giant issue – climate change. There are also some significantly different perspectives on the new legislation, how it came about, and what impact it’s going to have on climate change and the political environment.

There’s plenty of plaudits being handed out – not only from the politicians to themselves, but from pundits, too. For example, The AM Show’s Duncan Garner gave tribute to both sides of the Parliament, singling out the Minister for Climate Change James Shaw (“his ability to get almost unanimous support”), and National Party leader Simon Bridges (“being constructive, modern and green”) – see: Passing Zero Carbon Bill a sign Parliament has grown up.

Garner says “Mark this week down as the week Parliament grew up, maturing beyond petty politics and personal divisions to put New Zealand and indeed the planet first.” He concludes “Compromise is king. Long live the planet Earth.”

David Cormack praised the ZCA as being good for business: “This is the sort of certainty that helps businesses and research institutes plan for the future. It means they know what the legislative framework will look like so they can make five, 10 even 20-year plans knowing there is certainty. This was why the negotiation was so critical” – see: NZ goes from fast follower to world leader (paywalled).

Cormack also praised the consensus approach: “this is actual progressive legislation that was passed in a mature and sensible way.” And he pointed to the international attention on the legislation: “Already we have seen the ripple effect from other countries from the passing of the Zero Carbon Act. New Zealand had favourable media coverage all around the world, which will hopefully influence other countries to adopt similar laws. US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders praised it and said he would look to adopt similar measures were he to be successful in becoming President.”

Not everyone is impressed, of course. Greenpeace has been derisive.  Amanda Larsson, who is the group’s Lead Climate Campaigner, said the legislation was entirely inadequate: “below the thinly-veiled layer of rhetoric lay no substance. No regulation. Nothing but vague promises to maybe do something about dairy pollution in two to five years’ time” – see: Don’t kick climate to touch.

Another Greenpeace spokesperson, Steve Abel, was even more scathing, labelling the ZCA “bland and ineffective”, and suggesting the Green Party has essentially “joined the consensus on inaction” in their promotion of this as a solution to climate change – see: A weak climate law based on a feeble consensus is no ‘nuclear-free moment’.

In analysing the ZCA, and what was needed, Abel says: “the last couple of years the climate movement has called for: 1) political consensus on a 2) strong and 3) binding climate law. What we got was one out of three. But without being strong and binding, consensus is meaningless.” He adds: “One of the tell-tales of the hollowness of the Zero Carbon Act is that the polluting industries are not crying foul. The reason is, the law barely touches them.”

Greenpeace is not only extremely unhappy with the end product, but also the process that James Shaw and Jacinda Ardern used to get there, which Abel says has been a case of misleadership. He argues that by focusing on finding consensus amongst all the political players, the Greens and Labour have gone with a lowest-common denominator outcome rather than the right one.

He compares it to other landmark political progress such as women winning the right to vote, the creation of the welfare state, banning nuclear ships, and homosexual law reform, and points out these were achieved through strong leadership asserting the best way forward rather than attempts to find compromise across the political spectrum.

Henry Cooke also puts forward this position: “There is a good argument that Shaw should have made use of power instead of sharing it. National rarely obsesses with getting Labour and the Greens on board with changes it makes when it is in power. Sometimes you just have to pass a bill, pray you win the election, and hope that if you don’t, the other guys will find it too hard to undo your work” – see: James Shaw won the battle on climate change, not the war.

The counterargument is that, for the ZCA to endure, it’s better to get the National Party on board and reluctant to make too many changes to the scheme once it next gets into power. Cooke explains Shaw’s thinking: “to get people to actually trust that this structure would remain in place, Shaw knew he would have to bring National along with him. Any new structure which National just promised to tear down when it eventually won office would seem toothless, in his eyes.”

The consensus approach might end up being be very bad for the Greens electorally, according to Matthew Hooton, who says: “With multi-party consensus, those who worry about climate change now have no more reason to vote for the Greens than for Labour, National or NZ First” – see: James Shaw’s victory double-edged (paywalled).

Here’s his main point: “Come election time, Shaw and Ardern may wax lyrical about the new legislation and the Climate Change Commission it sets up, but Simon Bridges and Winston Peters will both be able to say, ‘yep, that’s my policy too’ and move on to immigration, infrastructure, housing or the economy.” Meanwhile, the Greens are likely to bleed more activists.

That makes National the biggest winner from the new law, Hooton says. And the fact that the party signed up was important for getting the law enacted: “National and NZ First are chasing the same provincial vote and so are joined at the hip on issues that worry farmers and agriculture support industries. Had Bridges defected from Shaw’s consensus, Peters would have too, and the bill would have been defeated. Whether out of genuine conviction, cynical political calculation or both, Bridges has therefore chosen to give Ardern a significant short-term win, but that only underlines how powerfully it is in National’s interests to remove climate change from the mainstream political debate”.

Herald political editor Audrey Young certainly regards the whole outcome as very good for National’s leader, saying he “has just had the best week of his leadership and enhanced his credentials as leader for his management of the party’s shift on climate change” – see: Simon Bridges enhances his leadership over climate change shift (paywalled).

Navigating the repositioning in favour of the ZCA was a long-time coming, and not easy for National’s leader: “Bridges had to be mindful of a policy shift that could alienate the rural sector, alienate the urban vote by looking too much like a farmers’ party, give New Zealand First a weapon by botching the arguments, cause strife within his party, and all about an issue which gave leadership rival Judith Collins an opportunity to seek support.”

In the end, Young says, it was entirely in National’s electoral interests to vote for the legislation, and the decision was “more about National’s future and how it wanted to be seen. Had the party voted against the bill, it would have been seen as climate deniers, not reflecting mainstream New Zealand which is caring more and more about climate change, and of being the party of only farmers, not urban liberals.”

She points to battles behind the scenes with NZ First determined to block National’s pro-farmer amendments to the legislation. Young says this also advantaged National: “Now National can legitimately claim to farmers that New Zealand First opposed National’s ameliorating amendments”.

Similarly, Henry Cooke says “In a strange way this is something of a victory for Simon Bridges’ leadership. He came into the leadership promising some compromise climate change” – see: James Shaw won the battle on climate change, not the war.

Cooke argues that National had to support the law, even if it continues to fight against other elements of the Government’s climate change agenda: “National was wedged into a very tricky space. As much as it might like to project itself as the party for rural New Zealand, the truth is there aren’t enough people in rural New Zealand to get the party the kinds of vote totals it needs to win power. National is an urban party as much as it is a rural one, and recognises that climate change is not going away as a topic. Now it can look constructive on the big structural stuff like the Zero Carbon Bill while turning the actual day-to-day climate change issues into proxy culture wars – see the feebate proposal, or investment in public transport.”

Cooke also points to NZ First’s role in watering down the power of the new Climate Change Commission: “Shaw was also keen to make the commission have a bit more actual power – a la the Reserve Bank. But NZ First leader Winston Peters quashed that, and then made sure everyone knew about it.”

Veteran political journalist Richard Harman also focuses on the role of NZ First in shaping the ZCA, reporting that Shaw had to negotiate very carefully with the party, and encountered many hurdles along the way. For example: “Those negotiations were, by all accounts, going well until Shaw’s separate negotiations with NZ First Chief of Staff, Jon Johansson, broke down late last year. There are varying descriptions of what happened, but the situation was so bad that the Prime Minister commissioned former chief of staff to Helen Clark, Heather Simpson, to try and broker a peace” – see: Bridges uses the Zero Carbon Bill to redefine National.

The upshot was that “NZ First demanded that Shaw stop negotiating with National and talk only to Government parties. The Prime Minister apparently agreed with this approach.”

In another column, Harman says “Shaw is understood to have been so frustrated by NZ First’s obstinance that he did not mention them in his speech lauding the bipartisan support for the Bill. Instead, he paid tribute to Bridges, [Scott] Simpson and [Todd] Muller” – see: Bipartisan agreement – except for NZ First.

And National seemed to return the favour, with Todd Muller – who negotiated much of the agreement with Shaw – being quoted in Parliament by Harman giving tribute to Shaw: “There are certain people that you meet in this place who you can connect with. He is one of them. He is a man of huge character and integrity. There were many times in the last 18 months of this process where things could have turned out differently, but for his determination to see this as an opportunity beyond partisan politics, the credit, in no small measure, sits with him.”

Finally, an interesting analysis of the ZCA comes from Thomas Coughlan, who draws on rightwing public choice theory to argue that the new legislation succeeds in taking much of the politics – or democracy – out of climate change, just as Ruth Richardson’s Fiscal Responsibility Act did for debt in the early 1990s – see: Carbon bill might not save NZ from climate change, but it saved democracy from itself. He says, “Get used to hearing forms of the following: ‘Don’t blame me for making you cut your emissions, blame the Zero Carbon Act’.”