Bryce Edwards: : Was the Government’s climate plan watered down by lobbying?

Bryce Edwards: : Was the Government’s climate plan watered down by lobbying?

Was last week’s major climate change announcement a case of vested interests getting their way? The sweet deal that agriculture and dairying got from the Green Party Minister for Climate Change certainly struck many as extraordinary.

Writing today in the Herald, lobbyist and commentator Matthew Hooton reflects on the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan, and says the industry-friendly announcement was the result of extraordinarily powerful lobbying. He says that corporate lobbyists managed to assert their clients’ interests with the Greens: “New Zealand farmers are the world’s best but their lobbyists are even better. While it’s not true today’s Green Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Fonterra, it’s understandable some environmental activists are starting to think so.”

Hooton points out that business and dairy lobbyists, including Business NZ, Dairy NZ, and Federated Farmers welcomed James Shaw’s first Emissions Reduction Plan, while environmentalists were furious with it.

So, is Hooton right? He certainly wasn’t the only one suggesting that the Government had capitulated to the power of agribusiness lobbying. Environmental academic Mike Joy proclaimed that Shaw’s plan shows that the Government has been “captured” by big business and agriculture”. While on one leftwing website an environmentalist demanded: “Get me the keycard logs for which lobbyists have been frequenting Shaw’s office”. Former Green MPs weighed in, saddened and outraged by what their party had delivered in last week’s much anticipated climate plan.

At the core of the observations about agribusiness supremacy is the fact that Shaw’s Emissions Reduction Plan contained a $710 million handout for research to assist farmers to find ways to reduce their methane emissions. This was the single biggest part of the plan.

Not only did critics see this as an unnecessary handout to farmers, when they could be funding their own research, but the money largely comes out of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), and farmers have also been exempted from having to contribute to that fund for the moment. Hence, farmers are getting money from a scheme that others are paying into, but they’re not.

To environmental critics, the ETS has therefore just become a slush fund for Shaw to dish out “corporate welfare”. Interestingly, even National Party leader Christopher Luxon has adopted this same criticism.

The Herald responded with surprise and concern about the “largesse” being afforded to the primary sector polluters. The newspaper’s editorial pointed out that “the gross domestic product of the combined industries amounted to over $12.77 billion”, and so “an industry of this size gladly accepting a $710 million package to look at ways to reduce emissions should embarrass everyone.”

Journalist Richard Harman reported that even industry figures were surprised at the decision, as apparently they hadn’t actually asked for the subsidies – which might suggest that the handout wasn’t actually a result of lobbying. He reported: “The Government never told Dairy NZ in advance that it would spend $339 million over the next four years on research to reduce dairy cow greenhouse gas emissions.”

Hooton backs that up saying, “Lobbyists say they didn’t even ask for the $710 million over four years to research lowering agricultural emissions, invent new biofuels and plant trees.”

Of course, the win for agriculture shows how much both Shaw and the Government desperately want to get the primary sector on board for its climate plans. At the moment they are relying on the agricultural sector to develop their own “He Waka Heke Noa” partnership, in which farmers find a way to eventually pay for their emissions.

This is about Shaw and Labour delegating the difficult farming emissions payment problem to farmers. Now both sides have effectively been locked into this agenda. Richard Harman also reports that Dairy NZ are not aware of any quid pro quo involved in the funding decisions, meaning there is no apparent leverage on farmers to deliver their side of the bargain.

We might never know to what extent agricultural lobbying played a role in influencing Shaw’s farmer-friendly climate plan. Of course, governments have always been keen to keep farmers on side for very good reasons, and so perhaps no one should be surprised that once again they’ve got a good deal. Politicians tend to believe that “What’s good for farmers is good for New Zealand”. It’s just surprising to what extent the Greens and Shaw now follow this maxim.

Naturally some commentators have asked what is the point of the Greens if they simply cannot deliver on their core reason for being in politics, Parliament, and the Government. It’s certainly looking like the Greens made a terrible decision to sign up to their coalition agreement in which they would take responsibility for do-nothing decisions on climate, the environment, and social housing.

Shaw has responded to such criticism by passing the buck and blaming Labour. In a rather odd statement, Shaw argued that although he represents the Green Party in Government and as a Minister, what he has put together doesn’t represent his own party: “I’ve delivered an emissions reduction plan on behalf of the government, and it is a Labour government, and so by definition it has a Labour hue to it.” He explained that a Green Party climate plan would look quite different to what he had delivered. It’s therefore not clear whether the Minister accepts responsibility and accountability for the decisions that come out under his own name.

This all raises the question of whether James Shaw is at risk of being rolled as leader by his party. This is something that Matthew Hooton also suggests in his column today, saying the membership have the knives out for Shaw.

With the perception that he has failed on climate change, attention is now apparently turning to Shaw’s responsibility for dirty rivers (under his Associate Environment Minister portfolio). Hooton argues that river pollution is getting worse under Shaw’s watch, and it’s only a matter of time before new statistics are released, which will be final nail in his Green leadership coffin.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  

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