Peter Dunne looks underneath Simon Bridges’ apparent change of tack on climate change and National’s history of embracing change after the fact

When in Opposition, the National Party has shown itself over the years to be very adept at removing politically problematic issues from the agenda by just embracing them as its own.

In the 1940s, Sid Holland realised National would never win an election by continuing to oppose social security, introduced by the Savage Labour Government in 1938. So social security stopped being “applied lunacy” to become instead one of National’s cornerstones for decent family life. Similarly, in the 1980s, Jim Bolger shifted National from its vehement opposition to Labour’s popular anti-nuclearism to clear that issue off the agenda before the 1990 election. 

And under John Key, Working for Families went from being “communism by stealth” to being the primary building block of National’s approach to family assistance. (Interestingly, such policy flexibility is less common in the Labour Party – Helen Clark’s acceptance of a modified Employment Contracts Act after 1999 is perhaps the exception.) 

Perhaps more importantly, after making such a call, each of those National leaders went on to become long-term Prime Ministers. Conversely, those leaders who were not so pragmatic – Don Brash and his infamous “gone by lunchtime” comment on the anti-nuclear policy would be the obvious example – failed to win an election.

It is against this background that Simon Bridges’ announcement that National is now willing to work on a bipartisan basis towards enduring climate change policy needs to be assessed. History and circumstance suggest his comment was less a bold statement borne of passionate belief than a recognition that in the end he had no alternative, and that National needed to catch-up. 

Around the world, Governments are realising that climate change issues are today’s pervasive reality, and that they require long-term, cohesive and durable solutions not always able to be achieved by narrow and shifting Parliamentary majorities of transitory Governments of the day. In Britain, for example, it is now Parliament that sets the long-term emissions reductions targets, not the Government of the day. 

In the last New Zealand Parliament, a local branch of GLOBE, (Global Legislators Organisation on the Environment) was formed, comprising representatives of all the parties then in Parliament, to seek and promote a genuine cross-party approach to climate change issues. It was able to commission some independent research analysis and its efforts culminated in Parliament, in a very rare move, agreeing to set aside time in April 2017 for a special debate on climate change. In the current Parliament, the GLOBE group is now chaired by a National MP, and has already held a successful meeting with the Productivity Commission about its recent report on climate change mitigation strategies. GLOBE can be expected to have a higher profile over the balance of this Parliament, and the useful dialogue begun last year with the previous Climate Change Minister will intensify under the current Minister.

And outside Parliament, the ravages of climate change become more and more apparent with each adverse weather event and dairy intensification proposal. For their parts, farmers and industrialists are becoming more concerned, and thus open to new, clean mitigation strategies as a consequence. As the leader of a party with strong links to the land management and primary production sectors, Bridges cannot help but be aware of these looming impacts.

Those pressures, plus the increasing interest from within his own party and from voters (young voters in particular) for a more concerted approach from political parties to dealing with climate change, all combined to effectively force Bridges’ hand. In the emerging circumstances, a continued status quo approach was never going to work.

Bridges’ announcement has two other impacts, potentially politically beneficial to the National Party. 

First, it is a new path to the Greens, and it will help reduce or even remove one more roadblock to greater co-operation between the two parties – possibly even in Government – in the future. And second, it puts the ball firmly back in the Government’s court. Labour cannot be seen to spurn Bridges’ overtures, lest it be viewed as churlish, so has to appear welcoming and co-operative. The Government has to ensure any future breakdown comes because of National’s intransigence or inflexibility, rather than its own unwillingness to work across the political aisle.

Overall, the best any Opposition can hope for in such situations is being seen as co-operative on a popular major policy change, while neutralising any political advantage that may accrue to the Government. Like Holland, Bolger and Key before him, Bridges realised he had no alternative. Whether he will be rewarded for that as his predecessors were in their days, remains to be seen.

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