Overruled: The joint decision of Finance Minister, Grant Robertson (Labour) and his Associate Minister, David Parker (Labour) arguably the two most powerful ministers in Jacinda Ardern’s government, to grant OceanaGold the consents which Land Information Minister, Eugenie Sage (Greens) had earlier denied them, offers bitter proof of how hard fighting Climate Change is going to be.
EARLIER THIS WEEK, several hundred young Wellingtonians laid siege to the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) on Stout Street in the heart of the capital. Their Extinction Rebellion protest was the first in a noisy series of similar demonstrations set to take place across the world. Had they known that two senior Labour ministers would, the very next day, over-rule the anti-mining decision of the Greens Land Information Minister, Eugenie Sage, their protest might not have been so good humoured.
The joint decision of Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, and his Associate Minister, David Parker (arguably the two most powerful ministers in Jacinda Ardern’s government) to grant OceanaGold the consents which Sage had earlier denied them, offers bitter proof of how hard fighting Climate Change is going to be.
In refusing the company its consents, Sage had argued that the mine’s proposed expansion was “inherently unsustainable, will increase emissions, and will provide only moderate employment benefits relative to winding down the operation and remediating the site”.
If Climate Change is to be fought successfully, judgements such as Sage’s will have to be issued by the thousand. Businesses large and small, in the cities as well as in the countryside, will have to be told, bluntly, that what they are proposing has become unacceptable. That the days of companies making profits, by passing on the environmental costs of those profits to future generations of taxpayers, are over. That the facts of economic life have changed.
A progressive government that was serious about its promise to make Climate Change the nuclear-free moment of its generation, would have stood behind Sage’s decision. If only to demonstrate that the painful but necessary decisions it would increasingly be required to make could not be undermined, second-guessed and generally got-around by hiring expensive lobbyists to whisper scary stories in senior ministers’ ears. Leading the charge in this respect should be the Finance Minister. No one else can speak to the business community with such authority.
But, what did the Finance Minister and his Associate Minister actually do? How did they express their solidarity? Well, in their media release of Tuesday, 8 October, they expressed it like this:
“In August 2019, Land Information New Zealand’s Overseas Investment Office (OIO) received two new applications from OceanaGold to buy the parcels of farm land totalling approximately 180 hectares near its current Waihi mines.
“In respect of the new applications the ministerial decision making roles were transferred to Ministers Robertson and Parker, who have policy responsibilities under the Overseas Investment Act, to ensure a fresh analysis of the application.
“The OIO considered the new applications under the benefit to New Zealand pathway of the Overseas Investment Act and recommended to Ministers the applications be approved.”
Ministers Robertson and Parker duly approved the OIO’s recommendation. OceanaGold’s investment, they said would: “benefit New Zealand because of the retention of about 340 full-time jobs over nine years and exports valued at $2 billion over nine years.”
It is hard to think of a more naked admission by this government that, when confronted with a choice between acting to save our environment and “business as usual”, it will unfailingly choose “business as usual”. Robertson and Parker have stripped away all the star-dusted rhetoric, and thrust forward the unadorned reality for everyone to see. Jobs and export earnings: the very same drivers that have persuaded government-after-government to put off saving the environment until tomorrow, on account of the heavy political costs associated with saving it today, clearly remain as powerful as ever.
Is this what the Greens signed-up for? To see their ministers humiliated? To have their policies ignored and their decisions over-ruled? To have the threat of corporate legal action trump any and every attempt at climate action?
In the light of this decision, the Greens must surely reassess their position vis-à-vis Labour and NZ First, Those among them (yes, we are looking at you James Shaw) who argued that ministerial portfolios would allow the party to do things that shouting from the side-lines could never achieve, stand rebuked by Robertson’s and Parker’s ruthless intervention. They have made it clear that any Green Party ministers who believe themselves free to act independently, according to the evidence, should think again.
And so should Extinction Rebellion, because, clearly, MBIE is the least of their worries.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 October 2019.