Governments are not very good at asking the people what they want. Understandable I guess – they don't do it often (triennially) and they don't really think that they should have to.
By people I don't mean corporate lobbyists, of course. I've never been sold on the idea that a company is a legal person. If they were people, even the Australian banks in this country would be paying tax. Anyway the corporations that fill the political parties' election coffers always get their say, regardless of which way the election swings.
No, by people I mean the ones the whole political and economic system is supposedly for. Politicians have this strange notion that because they can cobble together a majority of MPs in Parliament they have a democratic mandate to enact all their policies, even the obscure ones. Actually most voters probably have only a vague knowledge (at best) of party policy, beyond the headline issues. For people who only see a choice between Coke or Pepsi (as Russel Norman famously called Labour and National), why bother to compare all the food additives?
Now I'm not suggesting that we should all be consulted to death on every policy. In fact the select committee process is pretty good for getting people's views on most issues before Parliament (or would be if our schools taught civics education so that people knew what a select committee actually is). But I do think the public should get a say on the big questions. By which I don't just mean sex, drugs and smacking children.
What I mean is things like New Zealand's 2020 greenhouse gas emissions target. 2020 is only a decade away, but the implications of that target are going to be significant for the next hundred years. Climate change is a watershed issue with a dividing line, in my view, is between those that cannot imagine anything much different from the status quo, and those who recognise that the status quo is a dead end, down which we are rapidly accelerating.
So I congratulate the Government on holding public meetings to talk about climate change. At the Hamilton one I saw a clear majority for a strong, I would say responsible, target. It could also be described as the most scientifically defensible target. Unfortunately the Minister for Climate Change Issues, Nick Smith, has already misread the economics and stated that reducing our emissions by 40% , as is being called for at public meetings, would cost NZ about $15 billion a year, or around $3000 per person. This is simply not true.
The NZIER report he is quoting does not actually say that. In fact it contains so many arbitrary assumptions that it does not say much of anything that is informative. First of all, it assumes that whatever international commitment we adopt, the Government won't change any policies to help us meet them and that our actual greenhouse gas emissions will reduce by the same rate regardless. This means that the estimated cost differences between weak and responsible commitments are based on the price of simply buying emission permits on the world market.
Secondly it assumes that regardless of the cost of buying carbon permits, no new technologies will develop and no more forests will be planted. This is an unbelievable assumption for an economic analysis to make and deeply flawed. Thirdly, it uses a 'worst case scenario' of $200 per tonne of carbon to work out the costs at a 40% commitment, but uses $100 per tonne to work out the costs for smaller commitments. When these three factors are combined, the report looks intellectually dishonest but very useful for propaganda purposes.
It is worth examining what it would cost to reduce our emission by 40% from 1990 levels, and how it could be most cost effectively achieved. But lets not fall for the old lie that There Is No Alternative (to mugging our grandchildren).
(from my Waikato Times column 31 jULY 2009)