Labour government good on rhetoric but short on performance

Peter Dunne

Peter Dunne

Wellington, December 3, 2020

                    Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking on Climate Change Emergency in Parliament on                December 2, 2020 (Picture for New Zealand Herald by Mark Mitchell)

It is now stand and deliver time for Labour on Climate Change.

Otherwise, it looks set to follow other flagship Labour commitments like solving the housing crisis and reducing child poverty into the policy abyss.

When Labour was in Opposition, it constantly touted its Kiwibuild policy of building 100,000 homes over 10 years as the answer to New Zealand’s housing woes.

But in reality, Kiwibuild proved to be such a failed policy when Labour tried to implement in government that it was abruptly dropped, and the Minister replaced.

Now, the very word has even disappeared from the Labour lexicon.

Housing crisis worsens 

At the same time, the housing crisis has worsened with more people on waiting lists and the costs of buying a first house soaring. Bereft of the boldness of Opposition, Labour now looks completely out of ideas when it comes to dealing with the current situation and is crying out for others like the Reserve Bank to solve the problem for it.

Likewise, with child poverty, another of Labour’s major attacks in Opposition.

Indeed, we were constantly told that the sole reason the Prime Minister had got into politics in the first place was to tackle child poverty. She even made herself the Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, yet, under her watch child poverty levels have continued to rise.

Nuclear Free Movement 

When the Prime Minister was in Opposition she proclaimed that Climate Change was her generation’s “nuclear free moment,” implying a determination and commitment to bold and resolute action not so far matched by her actions in government.

The largely Green Party inspired Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Act passed in 2019  talks of providing “a framework by which New Zealand can develop and implement clear and stable climate change policies” that allow “New Zealand to prepare for, and adapt to, the effects of climate change.”

Good worthy words, but beyond that rhetoric little has actually happened so far.

Rising gas emissions 

In fact, New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions levels have been increasing at the second highest level of the 43 industrialised nations considered to have the greatest obligation to reduce emissions. Mounting international concern at New Zealand’s relative inaction means there is the real possibility of New Zealand being excluded from an important summit this month to mark the fifth anniversary of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change and to prepare for the next major meeting in Glasgow next year.

Far from being the climate change leader the government would like us to think they are, we risk being reduced to a climate change also-ran.

Credibility gap

In an unusually blunt and withering assessment from a senior diplomat, the British High Commissioner recently pointed out there was a credibility gap between New Zealand’s rhetoric and its actions.

She said, “There is also a gap – if you’ll forgive me for saying it, as a friend, and someone who has married one of your own – between ambition and reality. You have Scandinavian ambitions in terms of quality of life and public services, but a US attitude to tax. The brand 100% Pure New Zealand lulled many into a false sense of security, when the environmental reality is far more challenging.” New Zealand climate change expert Professor Bronwyn Hayward told the Guardian newspaper that “even under Trump, the US is going to have made better per-capita reductions than we have.”

New Zealand’s response – with an obvious immediate eye to inclusion in the forthcoming Sprint to Glasgow meeting – has been to resort to the politics of the grand gesture that this government is so good at – the declaration by Parliament of a Climate Change Emergency, and the promise to achieve net-zero emissions levels within the next thirty years.

Not of transformation

The Speech from the Throne last week said Climate Change Policy would be a priority over the next three years with the government committed to developing policy to reduce emission levels.

More fine words, but as is rapidly becoming the hallmark of this government, words still waiting to be backed up by firm action.

Others are starting to notice that this government is not the government of transformation it promised to be back in 2017. It has certainly turned emoting and getting angst about the various issues facing the country into a veritable art form, which has paid it a positive political dividend so far.

At the same time, it is becoming increasingly adept at finding others to blame for its failings. First it was the previous government, then it was its former coalition partner, and now, the housing crisis is apparently the fault of the New Zealand public!

However, there is no room for excuses any more. As the country’s first single party majority government in a quarter of a century it will be expected to match its rhetoric with action. Failure to do so will be no-one else’s fault but its own. Moreover, having talked so big to the world about our ambitions, we should hardly be surprised when others highlight our perceived shortcomings. The British High Commissioner’s comments, and the potential exclusion from the Sprint to Glasgow meeting are likely to be the first of many international wake-up calls.

Ministers’ assurance

So, having declared a Climate Change emergency by way of a Parliamentary motion, the ball is very much in the government’s court to back up that fine sentiment with practical and measurable policies for the next three years and beyond to turn around and reduce New Zealand’s steadily rising emissions levels. Ministers have been at pains to reassure that such actions are coming, and that the government will deliver on this policy. They do so against the United Nations Secretary-General’s lament this week that nowhere near enough is being done by governments across the world to tackle climate change.  

The clock has been ticking on this generation’s “nuclear free moment.”

The time for rhetoric has passed. The Parliamentary declaration has set up the expectation that decisive action will now follow. As part of the accountability inherent within that Ministers should be required to report to Parliament each year what tangible progress the country is making to reducing its emissions levels and moving to a more sustainable future.

Otherwise, climate change policy risks quickly disappearing into Labour’s policy abyss the way Kiwibuild and reducing child poverty have done in recent years.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 and September 2017. He lives in Wellington.

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