The gulf between the wonderful picture the government likes to paint on the world stage of New Zealand as a paragon of
international environmental virtue and reality continues to widen.
According to the Prime Minister at this week’s United Nations Climate change meeting, New Zealand is leading the world
in sustainable food production, and has done “so much in just two years” to transition the country towards a
carbon-neutral economy, with the implicit promise of more to come.
It is a catchy theme on the international stage – the small, isolated country at the edge of the world, long critically
dependent on agricultural production for its prosperity – that is nonetheless prepared to take the challenge of climate
change head-on, and reorder its economy and society accordingly, not just in its own country, but in the wider Pacific
region of which it is part as well. As a response to the bitter chiding by young Swedish environmental activist, Greta
Thurnberg, of international leaders’ perceived collective inaction, it could not have been better pitched.
There was just one small problem with it, though, as indeed there is with much of this government’s narrative, here and
abroad, about what it is doing. The bold and optimistic rhetoric is just not matched by the domestic reality. Whether it
be housing and the development of Kiwibuild, or mental health, or making our communities safer, the chasm between what
was promised and what has been delivered in this so-called “Year of Delivery” continues to yawn ever greater.
This is especially so in the area of environmental policy, climate change in particular. Indeed, the very day the Prime
Minister was proclaiming so very boldly on the world stage, it became clear that her government’s overall climate change
policy is running into difficulties, with the inclusion of agriculture in the Emissions Trading Scheme proving to be
just as much of a stumbling block as it was for both the last two National-led and Labour-led governments. And as they
both came to realise, an Emissions Trading Scheme without agriculture is only a partial scheme. Somehow, this government
thought it possessed a superior skill that would enable it to solve all that, but now it finds itself in exactly the
same position as its two predecessors who have wrestled with this same issue over the last twenty years.
The Prime Minister waxed lyrical in New York about the government’s freshwater policy, but again, the reality of
achieving better quality standards is falling far short of the international impression being created. Nor is it even
clear that the government will be able to make the progress it is seeking in this area, because of entrenched interests,
and despite the relevant Minister’s cocky assertion “trust me, I know what I’m doing.”
And all the while, more reports come to hand of various species of native flora and fauna being threatened to
extinction, coastal communities facing destruction because of rising sea levels, and our carbon emission levels
continuing to rise. While these are all long-term trends that transcend the life of this government, there is,
tellingly, no evidence to suggest that any of the steps it has taken “in just two years” have had any significant
impact. It is one thing to parade virtue on the international stage, but something else to have to match it to domestic
How much longer the government can get away with this game of two stories remains to be seen. In the absence of
effective and decisive action, and any evidence of progress, it is going to become increasingly difficult to maintain
the pretence. And if the National Party switches to full reverse mode on any hint of bipartisanship on climate change
policy, as seems increasingly likely in the wake of its decision to embrace Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s
successful climate change agnosticism in the recent election campaign, the rosy picture is going to look pretty tattered
Taking the moral ground on important international issues, the way the Prime Minister does, is a defensible position in
its own right. It is something successive New Zealand governments have done on various issues over the years and been
respected for. But to maintain any credibility for even the briefest period of time, there has to be more to it than
just endless talk and promise. There must be accompanying discernible, effective action. That is, after all, what we
elect governments for, something the current one is seeming increasingly incapable of grasping. For it, the endless
earnest talking about something seems just as important as doing anything about it.
Eloquent, fine words are all very well, but their effectiveness rests ultimately on the credibility of the actions they
give rise to. This government may learn the hard way that talk, endless talk, remains cheap. It is still the actions