Thursday, September 11, 2008

Peters has done Labour a huge favour

The Winston Peters saga is a continuing embarrassment for Helen Clark’s government, but Labour has one good reason to be extremely grateful for it. It has provided a perfect smokescreen for a much more worrying piece of political mischief: the emissions trading scheme.

While the media have been distracted by the scent of Peters’ blood, Labour and its allies have pushed through the most far-reaching, and potentially the most damaging, legislation of its nine years in office.

Forget the Bradford anti-smacking bill. It was a mere bagatelle compared with the Climate Change (Emissions Trading and Renewable Preference) Act, which will pile enormous additional burdens on an already chronically under-performing economy. The ETS, if it’s allowed to remain in place, will be eroding New Zealanders’ living standards and sapping business profitability long after the furoré over smacking has been forgotten.

Similarly, the row over non-disclosure of donations to New Zealand First will take its place in history, if at all, as a fleeting sideshow. In a few years it will be forgotten by all but the most obsessive political junkies. Yet which issues generated more media coverage and public debate?

I’m not saying the media were wrong to play up the Bradford bill and the hypocritical shenanigans of the Peters party. Anything but. But the relatively superficial coverage given to the ETS shows that given a choice between a complex story and a straightforward one involving the classic elements of conflict and personalities, with a billionaire and even an attractive, long-haired blonde thrown in, there are no prizes for guessing which one most journalists will go after. (In the Peters case some of those journalists have made the dangerous mistake of becoming combatants instead of mere observers, but that’s another story.) The ETS has been placed in the too-hard basket – left to the editorial writers, whose often very sound analysis tends to be read only by a pointy-headed minority.

It’s almost as if, while we’re all sitting ringside, baying for blood and wondering whether Rocky Peters is finally going to be decked, no one has noticed that a wrecking crew has dismantled the stadium and carted it off.

A few voices of sanity, such as Phil O’Reilly of Business New Zealand, have called in vain for time out on the ETS until its huge implications are properly assessed. In a statement issued today, O’Reilly pointed out quite properly that rushing through deficient legislation by a narrow majority just before an election was no way to conduct a democracy.

“There was a lot of consultation but hardly any listening,” O’Reilly said. “Substantive issues raised by the consultative process were ignored. Even submitters who favoured an emissions trading scheme and wanted to contribute sensible improvements were ignored.”

He concluded by asking, quite reasonably, “What was the rush?”

In the absence of any cogent explanation, we can only conclude that the rush is due to the Clark government’s determination to position New Zealand as a world leader in combating climate change, regardless of the economic cost. Never mind that:

(1) There is a serious scientific debate raging as to whether earth’s atmosphere is warming at all;
(2) Even assuming it is, it’s by no means settled that the cause is man-made;
(3) New Zealand’s contribution to global warming, if there is such a phenomenon, is so miniscule (at an estimated 0.2 percent of global carbon emissions) that any attempt at mitigation on our part, while giant industrial economies such as China and the US go unchecked, is little more than tokenism. But it’s a token gesture that will come at an enormous cost.

Labour’s determination to lead the planet has a certain historical resonance, given that New Zealand under the first Labour Government in the 1930s was acclaimed as the social laboratory of the world. Perhaps the ETS is Helen Clark’s stab at cementing a place in history similar to that of Mickey Savage. But the scheme has other attractions for Labour as well. For one thing, it appeals to the party’s redistributionist mindset, allowing future governments – as O’Reilly has pointed out – to recycle emissions revenue in the form of handouts to “worthy” groups. Expect Labour candidates to make capital of this on the campaign trail.

Combine these dangerous impulses with the neo-Marxist zeal, hairshirt masochism and deep resentment of capitalism that the Greens represent, and you have a recipe for damage of truly frightening dimensions.

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