Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Choices: the environment

Elections are about choices. Superficially, we choose a Parliament and a government. But by doing so, we are also choosing the policies that will be pursued for the next three years - policies that will make a real difference to our lives. In this series of posts, I am exploring the choices we face in employment relations, health, education, the environment, and other areas of key policy difference.

The environment is a key area of policy difference, and one I've been waiting to do for a long time. Unfortunately, Labour hasn't released its environmental policy yet - its website is still showing information based on its actions in government (hopefully this will change by Saturday). But a group called Vote For The Environment has done a survey which provides some information on where Labour is going [PDF]. Hopefully it'll be supplemented with a full policy release soon.

Labour's environmental policy leaves a lot to be desired. While trumpeting sustainability as a core for policy, they view it as little more than a fashionable buzzword, and have failed to live up to their rhetoric in practice. Climate change is the most obvious example of this. Labour has simply dithered in this area, allowing emissions to grow unchecked for nine years despite having a majority for regulation in their first term. While they have no implemented an Emissions Trading Scheme, it is weak, has no long-term targets, and functions primarily as a corporate welfare system for polluters. Their spineless decision to delay the entry of transport fuels by two years has resulted in the scheme being massively overallocated, which means it will be ineffective, while their free allocation to the agricultural sector gives our largest source of climate pollution a free ride. It's significantly better than nothing (if only because it gives parties which actually care a lever to push for real policy), but far short of what we need.

It's a similar story on the other big environmental issue: fresh water. Labour has pursued a collaborationist approach with dairy polluters in an effort to appease a key export industry. but the result has been further degradation of our rivers and streams. The collaborationist approach is simply a failure.

Labour has at least tried to take action to prevent overfishing, and is working on a long-term oceans policy for the marine environment. They have a good record on building the conservation estate (much to the disgust of farmers), have implemented national environmental standards for air quality under the RMA, and have supported (though also weakened) the Greens' Waste Management Act. But these are all minor issues; on the big ones they are simply failures.

Labour's saving grace is that National makes them look good. Where Labour does not care about the environment, National is openly hostile. They would gut the ETS, allowing more dirty dairy conversions, weakening targets even more by shifting to meaningless intensity-based targets, and handing out even more corporate welfare to polluters. And they would gut the RMA, our primary environmental legislation, weakening environmental standards and allowing developers to run roughshod over local communities. On dairy pollution, they're a farmer party which never saw a cow it didn't like, while their energy policy suggests they support more coal mining, not less. Overall, they want to "balance the environment with economic growth" - which in practice means putting the latter first and the environment last.

On the coalition front, Labour is much more open to working with the Greens than National, and so there is a chance that their policy could be strengthened. As for National, they're cuddling up to ACT - a party so hostile to the environment they refuse to even answer questions on the topic. Which really says it all.

There is a clear choice here, between a party which is lukewarm on the environment, and one which does not care about it at all. You might want to think about that before you vote.