National is taking a hammering from various pundits for reversing field on the mining issue. Here’s just one example. Says Tim Watkin, writing on the Pundit website:
“The government says its 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? 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.”
I for one am happy to celebrate the decision. What should I prefer? That National cram a dumb idea down our throats?
It appears that John Key, who runs National (not Gerry Brownlee, thankfully), exhibits that dreaded vice … pragmatism. But after all, National (like Labour, the Green Party and the rest) is a political party, not a religious cult. It — like the others would, if they enjoyed power — looks for a winning political formula that of necessity keeps it from drifting too far from the centre where most voters live. That’s the essence of successful democratic politics.
So, has National capitulated to a bunch of “greenies” who would never vote for it anyway? Sure, all those thousands of petitions and submissions helped snap National back toward the centre. National got lost in the fog of easy money on this one, stumbled into an 8,000 volt hotwire, and got knocked on its arse.
But I suspect something else was also at work within National.
Here in Hawke’s Bay, I know a dozen or so fly fishermen. I don’t think most of them would like to be called “environmentalists” in public (let alone “greens”). Yet they are passionate about protecting the region’s waterways … I mean, really passionate. Probably the more accurate term for them would be “conservationists.” They have a genuine reverence for this region’s, and New Zealand’s, natural endowment. They tend to focus on protecting land and water (and sometimes, biodiversity), so often they have a more narrow policy agenda than “environmentalists.”
And, I’ll bet, nearly to a person, they vote National. Because they also tend to believe in fiscal conservatism, markets, the profit motive, self-help, and generally less government. And there are far more of them than there are mining executives.
I suspect Brownlee’s mining proposal really upset this kind of National supporters … supporters with clout. His proposal threatened New Zealand’s most precious and irreplaceable lands with bulldozers and diggers. You didn’t need to be in the Green Party to “get” that.
For the sake of our environment, I hope this analysis is correct. I hope there are heaps of fly fishermen (and of course other Kiwis who adore our outdoors) in the National Party.
I find the observations of Gary Taylor, Chairman of the Environmental Defence Society, on point (full statement here):
“In my view the decision to lock down all National Parks from future mining is especially noteworthy and principled. We now have a national consensus, a compact between Government and the people that recognises the primacy of conservation in all our National Parks. It means we won’t have to argue about mining in National Parks again.
“It is also excellent that mining on the Coromandel Peninsula north of the Kopu-Hikuai Road and on Great Barrier Island is off the agenda. Both proposals were extremely controversial.
“…Some may say that this is an embarrassing back-down by the Government. I think it shows a Government that is listening and is becoming more environmentally aware as it matures in office. That is a very good thing.
“We have a large number of very important environmental reforms underway at present and this decision bodes well for good outcomes from those processes. They include devising an effective environmental regime for mining and oil exploration in the EEZ so that environmental disasters won’t occur there.”
To which I would add: And promulgating tough national freshwater quality standards.
Taylor might be a bit optimistic. National still doesn’t evidence with any consistency that it understands the concept of “clean growth,” too often casting issues in “economy versus environment” terms.
I don’t think any of us — greens, environmentalists, conservationists — should relent in keeping the pressure on National so that its environmental thinking does indeed “mature.”
But for a moment at least, I’m celebrating a correct decision.