Parliament must have seemed like a bad episode of Fear Factor this week, at least for Maori Party climate change spokesperson Rahui Katene. Following an excellent performance in the first stunt – the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) review – she found herself having to eat a maggot infested corpse without vomiting for stage two. I don't think that it is to her credit that she succeeded.
I doubt she was alone in wanting to vomit at the Maori Party's support for the new ETS. It must have been an interesting caucus meeting that made the decision to support watering down New Zealand's climate change policies, and I doubt it was made by consensus. When the Maori Party caucus decided to take a position contrary to numerous public statements by Katene, including the insightful comments that she wrote for the ETS review, it looked from outside like a political back-stab. It would seem that the mana of the Maori Party's relationship with National has become more important than the mana of their own MPs.
The scramble to pull her minority report from the ETS review, after the report had already been voted and agreed, just added to the humiliation. It would be pointless to speculate whether she was told to pull it, or whether it was her own decision once she realised that her position was being undermined, but the fact that it was unsuccessful did not help. It would seem that it was during leader to leader discussions that the Party agreed to support an ETS full of everything they had opposed in the past. If that is the case, the more interesting question is whether the co-leaders were unaware of the positions she had staked out in the report and in media interviews, or whether they just didn't care.
The internal dynamics of the Maori Party may be interesting, in a reality TV kind of way, but far more significant is what this will actually do to the environment. The answer is worse than nothing – it will continue to spur the growth in New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions. The whole point of an ETS, or carbon tax as the Maori Party has said they prefer, is to get the 'price signals' right. Under our current economic system it is often cheaper and easier to pollute than to be clean. Proper price signals make it cheaper to not pollute, by incorporating the cost of pollution into products and services.
The ETS being put forward by National and the Maori Party will not do this. While it does finally put a price on carbon from next year, it limits it to $25 a tonne, ensuring that it remains ineffectively low. In addition, for the first two years big polluters only need to pay for half of their emissions. Most importantly, the scheme will be based on the intensity of emissions, something previously opposed strongly by the Maori Party, with good reason. An intensity based scheme may drive more carbon efficient production, but will almost certainly increase the overall level of emissions. It's like trying to overcome alcohol addiction by moving to spirits – a more efficient way to cirrhosis of the liver.
The government is counting on increased forestry plantings to counter our high emission levels, but the even further delayed entry of New Zealand's biggest emitter – agriculture – makes it likely that yet more forests will be cleared for dairy farms. The price cap on carbon also makes forestry less attractive. The crazy thing is that any gains the Maori Party won for poor people from their about-face would be better paid for by fully charging polluters and using that money. A potential win – win has been turned into another loss for the earth.
(from my Waikato Times column 18 September 2009)