The National Party leader’s repeated gaffes on climate policy are moving from exceptions to the norm, Marc Daalder writes

Comment: On the AM Show on Wednesday morning, National Party leader Christopher Luxon slammed the so-called ute tax.

“We’ve got a Government that is actually taxing people with utes and there is no alternative. And then actually subsidising wealthy Tesla drivers by giving them subsidies,” he said.

Fortunately, National wasn’t bereft of ideas for climate policy.

“We think there’d be a different way to do it. We’d keep the Clean Car Discount to make sure that we’ve got low-emission cars coming in.”

The only issue is that the Clean Car Discount and the “ute tax” are the same exact policy.

The feebate scheme places a fee on high-emitting vehicles like utes and uses that cash to subsidise electric vehicles (including the cheapest Tesla model). It’s something National has vociferously opposed ever since it was first mooted in 2019.

Labour’s Michael Wood was quick to put out a press release crowing about Luxon’s apparent u-turn on the policy.

“National voted against the scheme, and misrepresented it as a ute tax. This flip flop shows the Nats are all over the place with climate policy,” he said.

Later that day, Luxon pulled a u-turn on that u-turn – ACT Party leader David Seymour and Acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson both termed this a “donut”.

“I misspoke this morning,” he said. “What I meant was we’re going to keep the Clean Car Standard and we’re going to make sure that we can access electric vehicles for low-income people.”

This too is a u-turn, given National said it opposed the Clean Car Standard when it went through Parliament.

The standard places a sinking lid on the emissions intensity of vehicle fleets imported by car sellers. If an importer brings in a ute, they may have to bring in an EV to offset that. The policy is designed to ensure adequate supply of low-emissions vehicles and prevent New Zealand from ending up a dumping ground for the world’s dirtiest cars.

So, does Luxon understand his own climate policy?

“Absolutely!” he called over his shoulder as he walked into the House.

It’s an understandable question to ask and understandable not to take him at his word either. This isn’t the first time he’s put his foot in his mouth on climate change.

Earlier this year, he refused to say on Morning Report whether National supported the Government’s new Paris emissions target. For reference, National said it opposed the target when it was announced, but he wasn’t the leader then.

Later that day, he confirmed to Newsroom that he does in fact support the pledge.

Just two weeks ago, he said New Zealand didn’t have to reduce emissions as it could count the carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean in the country’s exclusive economic zone as an offset. That’s not how international carbon accounting works – we only count manmade sinks and sources of emissions.

A spokesperson had to clarify for him that he was only talking about carbon sinks as a result of human activity.

“New technology and new science is creating new options and the point he was making is that all of these options should be up for consideration and potential use,” the spokesperson said.

Even outside of climate change, gaffes have given reason to doubt Luxon’s policy nous. He had to issue yet another correction this year after initially saying National would remove all public transport subsidies – without which almost all bus, rail and ferry networks would be nonviable.

These are all relatively minor mistakes quickly cleared up by a call from Luxon’s press secretary. But they speak to a serious issue: the Leader of the Opposition is still making basic policy mistakes.

At least one reason for this is that he and his party have yet to produce all that much policy, beyond an un-costed tax cut proposal now mired in controversy after Liz Truss’ similar short-lived effort to slash taxes nearly caused a financial meltdown in Britain.

Climate policy in particular is notoriously complex and dense. It’s also absolutely essential. More and more New Zealanders express concern about climate change each year. And now that the country has hard emissions budgets guiding our path to net zero (all of which National says it supports), parties will have to genuinely prove their policies can lead to the necessary emissions cuts.

Perhaps the pivot to supporting the vehicle emissions standard recognises this – or perhaps it too is a gaffe, covering for a larger gaffe.

In the absence of a concrete policy document, we’re left with just three proposals from National: Some form of EV subsidy funded by obscure means, an EV charging network and the Emissions Trading Scheme.

Really, National wants that last policy to do the heavy lifting. It certainly could, though under current settings this would see vast swathes of productive farmland planted in permanent exotic pine. Luxon says he will stop that from happening, which means the alternative is a skyrocketing carbon price showing up on New Zealanders’ petrol and grocery bills in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.

That’s not a politically sustainable policy, once the costs start to bite everyday Kiwis. But neither is no climate policy whatsoever, particularly as the climate-fuelled extreme weather starts to bite those same people.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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