Kevin Hague

Reading the National Government’s playbook

by Kevin Hague

It’s a bit of a hobby of mine – trying to infer the content of the advice they have received from Crosby-Textor from the behaviour of the Government. Of course it may not be that it’s just Crosby-Textor’s advice: some might come from Stephen Joyce himself, but you get the idea.

Some of it’s obvious, like the layered approach to everything. In the surface layer John Key has the job of being relaxed about everything (except those situations that call for ‘mild concern’ in the emotional register), and generally smiling and waving a lot. This gives the impression of a traditional National Government that understands that its prime objective of retaining power is usually best met by not doing very much. Beneath this level, however, there is a deeper layer of hard right ideological zeal, where many of the Government’s actions are clearly oriented towards maximising the efficiency with which big capital can extract profit from the environment and from labour, along with other articles of faith like privatisation and reducing the role of the State.

Then there’s the scary balloon tactic, that they seem to use for almost everything. An extreme version of  their plan is “floated” drawing public fear and ire in equal measure, and then when Government announces a much-scaled back version of the idea the theory is that the sense of relief  that things won’t be as bad as first thought mutes further effective opposition. My guess is that they rather fell over themselves on this with Schedule 4 mining. Their initial plan was exactly this: they were going to propose a green light to mining in half a million hectares of the most precious conservation land, of course intending that what they actually mined would be much less than this. But then they had internal Cabinet conflict and developed the two category approach: three areas with a green light and everywhere else slated for further investigation (read: mining if things work out with the first phase). Again, no doubt the plan was to trade away Great Barrier Island, but they left themselves too big a problem, because with just 3 areas proposed none of the others stacked up: Coromandel too politically sensitive, and Paparoa hard to mount a case for underground mining of low grade coal in a National Park.

Bait and switch is similar, and some people have theorised around mining that the plan all along was to distract the public with big mining plans, while the real plan was something else – increased powers for the Minister of Economic Development over public conservation land, for example. Probably there has been an element of this, but those who argue it was the main purpose are overlooking the aggressive way in which both Brownlee and Key invested political capital into the mining plans.

A personal favourite of mine is the false dichotomy. Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee gave us plenty of examples, like “greenies are hypocrites if they oppose our mining plans, because they all want to keep their cell phones and laptops”. Classic! Easy enough to deconstruct and demolish for readers of this blog, I’m sure, but likely to be superficially persuasive to those without the time to do that.

And of course the mining debate has seen the usual dirty tricks: for example serial use by Government members from the Prime Minister on down of a quote from Metiria applauding a refusal of an extension to a mining operation in Golden Bay as if she had been praising the approval of the Pike River coal mine under Paparoa National Park (which we opposed), despite this having been unambiguously corrected in the House.

There’s more, but you get the idea. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to see John Key this week saying two themes emerged from the public consultation over mining: opposition to the Government’s plans to mine in Schedule 4 (agreed, that was indeed a very strong theme) and public support for increased mining elsewhere in the public conservation estate. Excuse me? Just 1.5% of submitters supported this, and 99% of submitters opposed further mineral surveying work because they thought it would lead to pressure for increased mining. Then Gerry corrected his Boss, saying that actually this wasn’t the basis for the mandate for increased mining they are claiming. Instead they are going to ignore this and rely on some poll results (which actually show a minority of New Zealanders favour more mining).

This bizarre claim of a mandate cannot be the advice they have received from Crosby-Textor, and I wonder if perhaps there is some sort of public holiday happening in Australia, which could explain the flaky political management being shown. In the face of the strength of the 2precious2mine campaign and the incredibly strong public opposition the only sensible political response is to cauterise the wound with a complete backdown.  To instead fight on, as the Government is attempting, is to invite one’s opponents to wreak further damage. I, for one, fully intend to take up that invitation.

Published in Environment & Resource Management | Parliament | THE GAME by Kevin Hague on Thu, July 22nd, 2010   

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