Analysis: The National Party has tacked a careful path on climate policy, promising to rollback some of the Government’s measures and offering little to replace them. Will that hurt their electoral chances? Marc Daalder reports
Right-leaning voters keen on tackling climate change may still be complaining of whiplash from the National Party’s July leadership change.
The party went from Todd Muller, a former Fonterra executive with strong Blue-Green bona fides and the chief negotiator for National’s support of the Zero Carbon Act, to Judith Collins, who considered voting against the Zero Carbon legislation to mar an otherwise unanimous vote.
Collins seems to have carried on a similarly dismissive attitude towards climate change as National Party leader. During the Newshub leaders debate, she was met with boos for appearing to forget that the discussion topic was climate change, even as she needled Jacinda Ardern over New Zealand’s coal use continuing to grow.
Scott Simpson, National’s climate change spokesperson, said Collins is just as focused on climate change as previous leaders.
“I think Judith is interested in the climate question. The fact is that she is our leader, she voted for the legislation. I think like many New Zealanders, she understands the issues and the complexities of them, but she also understands the practical challenges that confront us,” he said.
Climate policy experts spoken to by Newsroom disagreed, saying National’s policies on climate change have missed the boat and that it could lose votes as a result.
In the end, it comes down to that word, a favourite of Simpson’s: Practical.
He’s the first to say that climate change is a major challenge facing New Zealand, but he always follows it up with a caveat.
“The National Party takes climate change very seriously and the issues related to it. It was a National government that made the commitment on behalf of the New Zealand government at the time and New Zealanders to sign up to the Paris Accord. We have an absolute commitment to meeting our international obligations,” he told Newsroom.
Then the caveat: “That said, we take, I think, a more practical approach than some of the hard left parties in our current Parliament”.
What does that “practical” approach look like?
For starters, the party wants to rescind the current Government’s ban on future offshore oil and gas exploration, make seven changes to the Zero Carbon Act to alleviate perceived burdens on farmers, scrap a scheduled review of when agriculture will enter the Emissions Trading Scheme and build billions of dollars of roads.
It has also set a target for nationwide uptake of electric vehicles which will require very little policy effort to achieve – the 80,000 vehicles by 2025 target is just around 4,000 above where the fleet is currently projected to be in that year.
“It’s really disturbing. As we’re seeing the effects of climate change come more and more to the fore, costing billions of dollars around the world, the idea of delaying even further the policy response that’s needed from New Zealand is really concerning for me,” Julie MacArthur, a senior lecturer on environmental politics and policy at the University of Auckland, told Newsroom.
“While I’m really glad to see National focus on electrification and some transport policy, because that’s a huge part of the increase in New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1990, I think the focus on really light touch policies on the EV side of things doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.”
Robert McLachlan is a distinguished professor in applied mathematics at Massey University and an expert on climate policy. He agreed that National’s climate proposals don’t go nearly as far as other parties.
“To rescind the ban on offshore oil exploration, you couldn’t get more anti-climate than that. It’s not just the policies, its the pattern of action over a long period. The climate people who have been following this story for a long time, they wouldn’t trust National to do at all the right thing,” he said.
There go the votes?
McLachlan and MacArthur both suggested that National’s climate stance could also hurt its electoral chances. The Stuff/Massey election survey found voters split along ideological lines when asked whether the Government needs to do more on climate, whether more caution is needed or whether it has performed about right.
But numerous other polls have found a solid majority of New Zealanders support the Government taking action on climate. An April Ipsos survey found 65 percent of New Zealanders believe climate change is, in the long-term, as serious a crisis as Covid-19. A similar proportion said that if the Government doesn’t act now, it will be failing the people of New Zealand.
“Most New Zealanders are now aware of climate change as a problem. It’s no longer something that’s 20 or 30 years in the future, it’s very present,” MacArthur said.
Crucially, more than half of those surveyed said they would be put off voting for a party that doesn’t have policies to seriously deal with climate change.
“I think if we hear reports from around the world but also here in New Zealand about the urgency of tackling climate change – especially things like rising sea levels and coastal exposure in New Zealand – that does hurt the National Party if its leader comes off as out of touch or spouting rhetoric from 10 or 20 years ago,” MacArthur said.
She said Collins’ go-to refrain – that New Zealand makes up a small proportion of global emissions, so why should we take onerous action if big economies like the United States and China aren’t – is a subtle way of refusing to own up to the scale of the problem.
“There’s a whole literature on policy under reaction and blame-shifting as one of the key strategies in that. The idea that, if you can point to your relative size but also that this is something that someone else or some future group has to take care of, it allows a government to not necessarily deny the problem but say there’s no intervention logic for us. You’re not hearing the urgency from Judith Collins and I do think it’s potentially a problem for the party of looking out of touch.”
McLachlan said National is stranded between 40 percent of the base which wants more from it on climate (those are the people who think the current Government is doing enough or should do more) and the other 60 percent, which wants it to slow down.
“They’re exposed on both wings, aren’t they? They’re in a very difficult position because they’re also losing votes to ACT who are even more sceptical. It’s a lose-lose.”
Talking a big game
Simpson rejected the notion that voters might quit National based on its climate policies.
“Voters generally look at the complete array of policies and the positions that political parties take. Unless you are a single-issue party and you really only have one policy, I think it’s beholden on political parties to present to the voting public a menu of policy options that are viewed in their completeness and totality.”
National, he said, was stronger on border protection, the economy and other high-profile electoral issues. When asked whether he accepted voters would see National as weaker on climate, he demurred.
“I can’t give an answer to that because ultimately that’s a decision for individual voters.”
But, Simpson insisted, there will be at least as many single-issue voters who are laser focused on the economy as on climate.
McLachlan also tempered his criticism of National by noting that no other political party has produced policy that would deliver the scale of emissions reductions that the science calls for. He believes that New Zealanders think they want action on climate, but in fact want that action only if it doesn’t change their lives in the slightest.
The polling bears that out. The Ipsos survey found that despite significant majorities of Kiwis saying they wanted strong climate action, only a minority were willing to take individual actions to reduce emissions.
Replacing car travel with walking or cycling was opposed by 37 percent of New Zealanders, compared with a global average of 23 percent. Reducing beef and dairy consumption was similarly opposed by 46 and 59 percent of the Kiwis polled, respectively.
Labour, McLachlan said, had struck the right chord – talk a big game on climate and introduce incremental changes. But that at least looks a lot better than dismissing the problem entirely. Remember, New Zealanders want to feel good about voting for a party that promises change on climate, so long as they don’t experience that change themselves.
“In my view, they’ve judged it correctly,” McLachlan said.
“It’s probably what people actually want.”